- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq — Iraq’s most revered Shi’ite leader persuaded a rebel cleric yesterday to accept a deal ending a three-week uprising in Najaf, after returning to the holy city amid bloody clashes that killed at least 74 persons.

Iraq’s government said it had also agreed to the deal brokered by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, under which Shi’ite militiamen would leave the sacred Imam Ali shrine in Najaf and U.S. forces would also pull out of the city.

“We are three-quarters towards the end of this crisis,” said Hamed al-Khafaf, senior aide to Ayatollah al-Sistani who entered Najaf in a huge convoy of vehicles earlier yesterday for talks with radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

He said Sheik al-Sadr, whose fighters have been holed up in the Imam Ali mosque and battling U.S. and Iraqi forces in the alleys outside, agreed to all points of Ayatollah al-Sistani’s peace plan to end fighting that has killed hundreds, driven oil prices to record highs and undermined Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s authority.

The plan involves Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi’s Army militiamen leaving the sacred Imam Ali shrine by 10 a.m. today. U.S. forces also are to leave Najaf, with security being turned over to Iraqi police. Najaf is to be declared a weapons-free zone, and the government is to compensate victims of the fighting.

Iraqi Minister of State Kasim Daoud told a press conference that Sheik al-Sadr would not face arrest after the deal. Earlier this year, an Iraqi arrest warrant was issued for Sheik al-Sadr in connection with the killing of a rival cleric in Najaf last year.

“He remains as free as any citizen of Iraq,” Mr. Daoud said.

He added that U.S.-led forces would leave Najaf as soon as Mr. Allawi ordered them to.

The government also agreed to Ayatollah al-Sistani’s request that Shi’ite marchers be allowed to enter the shrine.

Early today, thousands of Shi’ite marchers converged on the shrine and were greeted by militants loyal to Sheik al-Sadr. Witnesses said that the militants, who had been holed up in the shrine for the last three weeks, allowed them to enter. Other marchers kissed the outer wall of the shrine and chanted religious slogans.

Late yesterday, Al Jazeera reported that Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, taken hostage in an ambush near Najaf, had been killed by his captors.

On Tuesday, the Islamic Army in Iraq gave Italy 48 hours to withdraw its 2,700 troops from Iraq or Mr. Baldoni would be killed. Italy refused to bow to the demands.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi condemned Mr. Baldoni’s killing as “barbaric.”

The deal with Sheik al-Sadr came after a day of bloodshed.

At least 15 supporters of Ayatollah al-Sistani were fatally shot in Najaf and 65 wounded when gunmen opened fire at police who were trying to control a crowd, prompting police to shoot back, witnesses said.

“Suddenly armed men joined our group and fired at the police. The police started firing everywhere,” witness Hazim Kareem said at a Najaf hospital, where bodies were piled on stretchers.

A hospital worker added: “Go look at the morgue, it’s full.”

In nearby Kufa, a mortar attack on the town’s main mosque killed at least 25 al-Sadr supporters as hundreds of his men inside prepared to march on Najaf, officials said.

Shi’ite marchers were fired on in Kufa about the same time, and several were killed. It was not clear who carried out the attacks.

The Health Ministry said at least 74 persons were killed in yesterday’s attacks in Najaf and Kufa and hundreds wounded.

Ayatollah al-Sistani drove into Najaf from the southern city of Basra in a huge convoy, guarded by dozens of police pickups with their sirens wailing. Scores of police brandished AK-47 rifles as they drove past thousands lining the streets leading into Najaf.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis in cars and on foot traveled to Najaf to welcome him, but Ayatollah al-Sistani, 73, told them to wait at the city’s outskirts.

Ayatollah al-Sistani returned on Wednesday from three weeks in London where he underwent heart treatment. The uprising erupted just as he left his adopted home in Najaf, Iraq’s center of Shi’ite learning.

Mr. Allawi said he had ordered his forces to observe a 24-hour cease-fire in Najaf from 3 p.m. to help the talks. The U.S. military said it was suspending offensive operations, and fighting waned last night after the earlier tension.

Mr. Allawi added that Mahdi’s Army fighters would be offered an amnesty if they gave up their weapons and left the shrine.

“The Iraqi government will provide them with ways to hand in their weapons and leave the sacred shrine, and we affirm again that we will provide safe passage to Sayyed Muqtada al-Sadr if he chooses to stop the military confrontation,” Mr. Allawi said.

Ayatollah al-Sistani’s followers said the cleric’s intervention would be crucial in getting the deal to last and ensuring a peaceful resolution after U.S. firepower failed to drive rebels from the mosque. The elderly cleric helped end an earlier uprising by Sheik al-Sadr’s supporters in April and May.

Sheik al-Sadr, 30, has challenged the collegiate leadership of the Najaf clergy headed by Ayatollah al-Sistani and styled himself as the face of anti-U.S. Shi’ite resistance.

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