Iraq cleric agrees to end uprising, fighting rages on
A radical Iraqi cleric leading a Shi'ite uprising agreed on Wednesday to disarm his militia and leave one of the country's holiest Islamic shrines after warnings of an onslaught by government forces.
But sporadic fighting continued into the night in Najaf and the U.S. military said it had killed more than 50 militia loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr when it advanced into a Baghdad suburb that is one of his powerbases.
Al-Sadr, whose rebellion poses a major challenge to Iraqi stability, agreed to the pullout hours after the interim government had threatened to storm the Imam Ali Mosque to teach his Mehdi Army militia "a lesson they will never forget."
Tensions, however, remained high after dark in the holy city where fighting has raged for two weeks and killed hundreds.
Sadr, who only a few days ago had vowed to fight to the death, said his forces would disarm and leave only after U.S. marines encircling the city had agreed to a truce.
Iraq's Defense Ministry countered by ordering them to lay down their weapons and leave immediately, abandoning their rebellion in Najaf and at least seven other cities. Only then would they be granted an amnesty.
U..S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice told Fox News on the deal: "I don't think we can trust al Sadr. I think we have to see action, not just words."
A U.S. officer said American forces, backed by tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, advanced some 1.5 miles into Baghdad's Sadr City, a slum of two million mainly Shi'ite inhabitants, meeting sporadic resistance.
The officer said soldiers killed "slightly over" 50 Iraqis identified as firing upon the advancing forces.
In Najaf, intermittent exchanges of artillery and mortar and machinegun fire continued well into the night hours after Sadr's dramatic announcement that he was prepared to withdraw.
"Sayyed Moqtada and his fighters are ready to throw down their weapons and leave for the sake of Iraq," Ali al-Yassiri, Sadr's political liaison officer, told Reuters.
Delegates at a meeting in Baghdad that chose an interim national assembly said Sadr had agreed to accept their demands to resolve the crisis.
Sadr's fighters have holed up in the shrine in the heart of the southern city, hoping U.S. and Iraqi forces will not dare to attack the holiest site for Iraq's majority Shi'ites.
"TEACH THEM A LESSON"
Defense Minister Hazim al-Shaalan had some six hours earlier said an assault was imminent on the golden-domed mosque.
"We will teach them a lesson they will never forget," Shaalan said in the city after meeting local officials.
American marines and soldiers have been doing most of the fighting in Najaf, but Shaalan said Iraqi forces had been training to storm the shrine complex.
The scion of a Shi'ite clerical dynasty and aged about 30, Sadr is the most powerful opponent of the United States and the interim government.
Apart from Sadr leaving the shrine, the delegates demanded Sadr's men lay down their weapons and the cleric and his men disavow violence and participate in elections set for January.
The Baghdad conference announced members of a new council to oversee the interim government.
A list of 81 government-backed candidates was chosen after four days of deliberations. The rest were made up of members of Iraq's now defunct governing council.
The council will be able to veto legislation with a two thirds majority, approve the 2005 budget and appoint a new prime minister or president should either quit or die in office.
Al Jazeera television reported that Iraqi militants who said they captured a U.S. journalist last week have threatened to kill him within 48 hours if U.S. forces do not leave Najaf.
It showed footage of a man with a mustache kneeling in front of five masked men holding rifles. The channel identified the man as Micah Garen and the group as the Martyrs Brigades.
At the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad, two prisoners were killed and five wounded on Wednesday when a fight broke out among hundreds of detainees.
A statement issued by the U.S. Central Command did not make clear how the prisoners died, but said that "lethal force" was used by U.S. troops to bring the disturbance under control.
Abu Ghraib prison has been at the center of a scandal in which the U.S. military abused and sexually humiliated Iraqi prisoners. That abuse sparked international condemnation and fury in the Arab world.