- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — Radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr agreed yesterday to withdraw his militia from Najaf and hand back the city to Iraqi police, the government said, raising hopes for an end to weeks of fighting that threatened some of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest sites.

The announcement by Mouwafak al-Rubaie, Iraq’s national security adviser, came after U.S. troops scored a major success against Shi’ite militiamen, arresting Sheik al-Sadr’s key lieutenant in a pre-dawn raid. Clashes late Tuesday and early yesterday between U.S. troops and Sheik al-Sadr’s fighters killed 24 persons and wounded nearly 50, hospital officials and militia members said.

Agence France-Presse reported the agreement on a truce covered three contested cities: Najaf, Karbala and Kufa.

The news agency quoted a senior U.S. official calling the accord a “significant achievement.”

Sheik al-Sadr released no confirmation of the agreement.

A deal to abandon Najaf would be a major step toward ending Sheik al-Sadr’s uprising in the south only weeks before a new Iraqi government takes power June 30, formally ending the U.S.-led occupation.

Also yesterday, three Marines were killed in Anbar province “while conducting security and stability operations,” the military said, declining to release further details because of security concerns. The province includes the western suburbs of Baghdad as well as Fallujah, Ramadi and Qaim.

Mr. al-Rubaie, a Shi’ite and former Iraqi Governing Council member, said Sheik al-Sadr made the offer in a letter to the city’s Shi’ite clerical hierarchy. Sheik al-Sadr offered to remove his fighters from Najaf — except for those who live there — but demanded that U.S. and other coalition troops “return to base,” allowing Iraqi police to regain control of the city, Mr. al-Rubaie said.

The young Shi’ite radical also demanded “broad discussions” within the Shi’ite community over the future of his militia, the Mahdi’s Army, and that legal proceedings against him in a murder case be deferred until then.

Sheik al-Sadr said he was making this offer because of “the tragic condition” in Najaf after weeks of fighting between his militiamen and the Americans and because of damage to the city’s holiest shrine, the Imam Ali mosque.

Fighting around some of the holiest cities of Shi’ite Islam has angered many Shi’ites in Iraq and elsewhere and has led to calls for both U.S. troops and the militiamen to pull back from the shrines.

On Tuesday, the Imam Ali shrine received slight damage. Both U.S. and Shi’ite forces blamed each other.

American forces seized Sheik al-Sadr’s key lieutenant, Riyadh al-Nouri, during a raid on his Najaf home about 4 a.m. yesterday. U.S. officials said the captive offered no resistance.

Mr. al-Nouri’s arrest was a major blow to the Mahdi’s Army, which has been fighting coalition forces since early April in Shi’ite neighborhoods of Baghdad and in the Shi’ite heartland south of the capital.

Sheik al-Sadr began his uprising after the U.S.-led occupation authority cracked down on his movement. An Iraqi judge has issued an arrest warrant charging Sheik al-Sadr and Mr. al-Nouri in the April 2003 assassination of a moderate cleric, Abdul Majid al-Khoei.

U.S. officials have expressed desire for a peaceful settlement to the standoff but have insisted that the sheik disband his “illegal militia” and submit to “justice before an Iraqi court.”

“We still are committed to finding a peaceful resolution to this problem,” Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, coalition deputy chief of operations, told reporters in Baghdad before word of Sheik al-Sadr’s offer. “But until that peaceful resolution comes forward … we will continue to conduct military operations directed against his forces.”

In addition to the Najaf clashes, U.S. officials said, American soldiers fought 21 small engagements with militiamen in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood late Tuesday and early yesterday. No casualty figures were released.

• Associated Press correspondent Hamza Hendawi contributed to this report from Baghdad.

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