- The Washington Times - Friday, August 20, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — A rebel cleric’s militiamen kept their guns outside the holy Imam Ali mosque in Najaf yesterday but they appeared to be in control of the shrine despite contrary claims by Iraq’s interim government.

Witnesses in the southern city said Mahdi’s Army, led by radical cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, controlled the narrow alleys leading to the mosque, though the Shi’ite leader’s whereabouts were unknown, according to Reuters news agency. Police were nowhere to be seen.

Negotiators wrangled into the night over getting the militants out of the compound after the sheik issued a surprise offer to give up control of the shrine to Shi’ite Muslim religious leaders.

The removal of weapons and pledge to hand over control of the shrine to religious authorities was seen as a big step toward a resolution of the two-week face-off in Najaf that has killed dozens of people and wounded hundreds in fighting between the militia and a joint U.S.-Iraqi force.

Offering a face-saving way out of the crisis, a peaceful pullout mediated by religious authorities would allow Iraq’s interim government to keep its pledge not to negotiate and let the militants say they had not capitulated to U.S.-led troops.

The development came just a day after Sheik al-Sadr rejected a government ultimatum to withdraw from the shrine or face an assault on the walled compound. Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi backed off the threat after the new offer from Sheik al-Sadr, and his national security adviser reiterated that the government wanted the cleric to join the political process.

Sheik al-Sadr has said previously he would not give in to the government demand to disband his militia and take up politics. It remained uncertain how the government would react if that demand went unmet.

Sporadic explosions and gunfire were heard in the streets of this holy city, but the clashes were far fewer and less intense than in previous days. Fighting between Thursday and yesterday mornings killed 77 persons and wounded 70 others, officials said.

Armed militants could be seen around the shrine before sundown, circulating in the Old City district, but any who entered the Imam Ali compound left their guns with comrades outside, then reclaimed them when they exited. Inside the compound, unarmed fighters mingled with civilians.

An Associated Press reporter saw no weapons in the shrine. It was not possible to check whether any weapons were hidden inside, though militia leaders denied any were there. No police or Iraqi security forces were in the shrine.

After nightfall, Sheik al-Sadr’s aides were still negotiating details of the shrine’s turnover to representatives of Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, who is in a London hospital for treatment of a heart problem.

It was not clear whether the militia wanted its men to be able to stay in the compound, which they have used as a refugee. But Ayatollah al-Sistani’s representatives insisted the fighters had to leave before they would take responsibility for the shrine.

“If they want to vacate the holy shrine compound and close the doors, then the office of the religious authority in holy Najaf will take these keys,” an al-Sistani aide, Sheik Hamed Khafaf said, from London. “Until now, this hasn’t happened.”

The government was not part of the talks, and it continued to demand that Sheik al-Sadr disband his militia and join in peaceful politics and help create a democracy for Iraqis.

“We need to get rid of this militia and we need to get them to disarm and leave the shrine,” Iraqi national security adviser Mouaffaq al-Rubaie told CNN. “There’s no way we can build democracy in this country with a militia all over the country.”

A previous uprising led by Sheik al-Sadr in the spring ended with a series of truces that kept his militia intact to fight in a new round of violence that started Aug. 5. The government and the U.S. military have said any resolution to the fighting should ensure there is no third round.

Meanwhile, insurgents ambushed a U.S. military patrol with a bomb yesterday in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, killing two American soldiers and wounding three, said Maj. Neal O’Brien, a spokesman for the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division.

The military also reported that two Marines were killed in action in the restive Anbar province, one on Wednesday and the other on Thursday. As of Thursday, 947 U.S. personnel had died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the Defense Department.

Police in the southern city of Amarah said Shi’ite militants blew up an oil pipeline near town yesterday. The extent of damage to the line, which runs from the southern Bezergan oil field to a refinery in Amarah, was not immediately clear, officials said.

The sudden peace moves in Najaf headed off a government attack on the revered shrine, which was certain to cause bloodshed and likely damage the gold-domed mosque — a result that would enrage Shi’ites throughout the country and Muslims outside of Iraq.

Mr. Allawi said the offer to give up control of the shrine meant a peaceful resolution was still possible.

Meanwhile, an aide to Sheik al-Sadr said kidnappers promised yesterday to release an American journalist abducted in the southern city of Nasiriyah on Aug. 13.

The kidnappers, calling themselves the Martyrs Brigade, threatened a day earlier to kill Micah Garen of New York within 48 hours. But an al-Sadr aide, Sheik Aws al-Khafaji, said he spoke with the militants and was told they would release Mr. Garen.

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