- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — Thousands of pilgrims streamed into the Imam Ali shrine yesterday and militants left, handing the keys to Shi’ite religious authorities after Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric brokered a peace deal to end three weeks of fighting in this holy city.

Dozens of Iraqi police and national guardsmen deployed around the compound of the walled, golden-domed shrine in the Old City yesterday afternoon — but did not enter. Some kissed the compound’s gates, others burst into tears. Some residents of the devastated Old City neighborhood waved to them and yelled out, “Welcome. Welcome.”

Militants piled assault rifles in front of the offices of their leader, radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Thousands of Sheik al-Sadr’s militiamen were still believed to be armed in the city, though most were staying off the streets. In one narrow alley, some fighters could be seen pushing carts full of machine guns and rocket launchers.

Iraqi forces took control of the Old City, the neighborhood of winding alleys where the shrine is located, and U.S. forces appeared to have maintained their positions in the Old City.

A U.S. Marine spokeswoman, Capt. Carrie C. Batson, said the Americans would remain in place “until further notice” to “ensure implementation of the terms of the cease-fire,” adding that U.S. forces were working at the Iraqi government’s request. The peace deal calls on U.S. troops to leave, but there was no word when that would happen.

Sheik al-Sadr’s militia, called Mahdi’s Army, which has risen up against U.S. forces twice this year, remains intact and Sheik al-Sadr will not be arrested under the peace deal sealed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most respected Shi’ite cleric.

But the transfer of the Imam Ali shrine, one of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest sites, robs them of a refuge and stronghold that helped them stand against U.S. forces. American soldiers could not assault the shrine for fear of enraging Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.

The Bush administration welcomed the agreement but expressed caution, given its suspicions about Sheik al-Sadr.

“We’re still trying to get additional details about all the terms of the agreement,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. “We welcome these steps to resolve the situation surrounding the shrine of Ali without further violence and we support the efforts of the Iraqi government to make sure that the rule of law applies throughout the country.”

A defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the U.S. military is wary of any agreements in Najaf because Sheik al-Sadr’s militia has used previous breaks in fighting to regroup and rearm.

Still, Ayatollah al-Sistani’s role is cause for hope because his endorsement may persuade Sheik al-Sadr’s militiamen to stop fighting, the official said.

The fighting in the city since Aug. 5 killed hundreds of Iraqis and nine U.S. servicemen, ravaging parts of the Old City and threatening the control of Iraq’s interim government.

After a day of prayers and celebrations at the shrine civilians and fighters left, and Sheik al-Sadr’s followers handed over the keys to the site to religious authorities loyal to Ayatollah al-Sistani.

“Now the holy shrine compound has been evacuated and its keys have been handed over to the religious authority,” al-Sistani aide Hamed al-Khafaf told Al Arabiya television.

Sheik al-Sadr ordered his fighters to lay down their arms and leave Najaf and neighboring Kufa after agreeing to the peace deal in a face-to-face meeting the night before with Ayatollah al-Sistani.

“To all my brothers in Mahdi Army … you should leave Kufa and Najaf without your weapons, along with the peaceful masses,” Sheik al-Sadr said in a statement broadcast over the shrine’s loudspeakers.

Iraq’s interim government also accepted the deal. Police briefly exchanged gunfire with militants in one part of town yesterday, and some U.S. troops were still receiving occasional sniper fire. Nevertheless, most of the city was calm.

Ayatollah al-Sistani’s highly publicized, 11th-hour peace mission boosts his already high prestige in Iraq and cloaks him in a statesman’s mantle, showing that only he could force an accord between two sides that loathe each other.

Elsewhere in Iraq:

• Militants in Baghdad attacked a U.S. patrol four times with grenades, wounding 12 U.S. soldiers; four suspects were detained on suspicion of involvement in the attacks, the Army said.

• U.S. warplanes bombed positions in the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, witnesses said. There was no immediate word on casualties or damage.

• A car bomb exploded in the northern city of Mosul as a U.S. military convoy moved through a traffic circle on the western edge of the city, wounding 10 Iraqi civilians and a U.S. soldier, the Army said.

In Najaf yesterday morning, thousands of Shi’ites marched through the city to visit the shrine. Many kissed its doors as they entered, chanting “Thanks to God.”

U.S. soldiers looked on as people passed in the streets, heading to the shrine. Army 1st Lt. Chris Kent said the peace agreement “appears to be a final resolution. That’s what it looks like right now.”

Inside, the crowds mingled with Mahdi’s Army fighters and performed noon prayers. Afterward, civilians and militiamen streamed out, with some militants chanting “Muqtada, Muqtada.”

By the afternoon, the shrine appeared empty, clear of the visitors and the militants.

The 75-year-old Ayatollah al-Sistani returned to Iraq after heart treatment in London to intervene for the first time in the bloody conflict, attracting thousands of followers who marched on Najaf and massed on its outskirts.

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