- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — U.S. officials yesterday announced a suspension of offensive military activities in Najaf in response to a deal calling for militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to turn in their heavy weapons and leave the city.

U.S. forces were to remain in position for the time being, but pull back once Iraqi security forces took charge of Najaf. The deal fell short of U.S. demands that Sheik al-Sadr submit to a trial in the killing of a fellow cleric and disband his militia.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” said Dan Senor, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad, in announcing the suspension of military operations. “This is a good first step.”

One of the negotiators of the arrangement, Iraqi Governing Council member Salama al-Khafaji, came under fire from unidentified gunmen as her convoy returned to Baghdad from the talks in Najaf yesterday.

Mrs. al-Khafaji survived the attack, but three of her guards were killed and her son was missing, fellow council member Mahmoud Othman told the Associated Press in Baghdad. Mrs. al-Khafaji is one of three women on the council and replaced another Shi’ite woman, Aquila al-Hashimi, who was assassinated in September.

The truce in Najaf follows weeks of fighting that killed more than 350 Iraqis and 21 coalition troops while damaging some of Shi’ite Islam’s most revered holy sites, prompting fears that further action would alienate the nation’s Shi’ite majority.

Negotiated by Sheik al-Sadr, the Iraqi Governing Council and Shi’ite clerical leaders, the deal also calls for Sheik al-Sadr to relinquish control of government buildings and allow Iraqi security forces to do their jobs.

In return, he asked that U.S. forces stay mostly outside the city — as they did before the fighting began — and that a broad discussion be started on the future of his militia, Mahdi’s Army.

A spokesman for Sheik al-Sadr sought to portray the deal as a military victory, much as fighters in Fallujah used a cease-fire there to say they had successfully resisted American forces.

“The fact that we stood up for a period of about two months against the most powerful force in the world is a victory to us,” the AP quoted Qais al-Khazali as saying. “We hope that the American initiative to suspend operations is real.”

Iraq’s national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, said there would be further “dialogue” on the future of Mahdi’s Army. He was unable to say whether the arrest warrant for Sheik al-Sadr would ever be exercised or whether his militia would be disbanded.

Asked whether Sheik al-Sadr might have a political role in Iraq eventually, Mr. al-Rubaie said: “I do not see any reason that prevents any political movement that uses democratic means … from participating in the building of Iraq.”

Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the coalition deputy chief of operations, stressed that U.S. forces “are not doing this at the behest of Muqtada. The Iraqis are coming to us and saying this would be helpful.”

The terms of the agreement were read aloud by Iraqi officials inside the gold-domed shrine to Imam Ali, the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law and the first saint in Iraq’s majority Shi’ite faith.

Fighting had slightly damaged the shrine, as well as the tomb of Imam Hossein in nearby Karbala, another holy city, causing an outcry among Shi’ites from Lebanon to Pakistan.

After the announcement in Najaf, streams of al-Sadr loyalists poured into the city in a show of support. “Long live Sadr,” they chanted. “America and the Governing Council are heathens.”

There already was evidence that the cleric was not fulfilling his promise to order all militiamen out of Najaf unless they had homes in the city.

Many militiamen milling around the shrine yesterday afternoon admitted they were from other parts of Iraq, especially Sadr City, a poor section of Baghdad where the young preacher draws much of his support.

One militiaman, calling himself Seyed Ahmad, showed off a camouflage-green bulletproof jacket he said he had taken from a U.S. soldier he killed in Karbala. “I don’t have any job other than to sacrifice myself for the Sadr family,” the 20-year-old said.

In nearby Kufa, the town where Sheik al-Sadr regularly delivers Friday prayers, Mahdi’s Army fighters appeared to be dragging their rocket-propelled grenade launchers into alleyways. A U.S. soldier at a checkpoint suggested they were handing the weapons over to authorities.

Many residents of the shrine cities have tired of Sheik al-Sadr, his militia and the fighting he has brought here, which some complain has created conditions as bad or worse than during the three weeks of fighting to topple Saddam Hussein last year.

“For the last seven days, we have no water, no electricity and no telephones,” said Haydar Hassan Ahmad, 40, an unemployed university graduate.

“We can’t sleep at night because we have no coolers or air conditioners, and we can’t go to the roof and sleep on the roof for fear of shrapnel and bombardment,” he said. “If someone gets sick at night, we can’t take them to the hospital for fear of American snipers.”

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