Iraqi government, Al-Sadr OK peace deal
Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, made a dramatic return to Najaf on Thursday and swiftly won agreement from a rebel cleric and the government to end three weeks of fighting between his militia and U.S.-Iraqi forces.
The renegade Muqtada al-Sadr accepted the proposal in a face-to-face meeting Thursday night with the 75-year-old al-Sistani, Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric. Hours afterward, the government also agreed to the deal.
Meanwhile, an Arab television station said Friday it received a video showing the killing of Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni. Baldoni was kidnapped by militants who threatened to execute him if Italy did not withdraw troops from Iraq.
Al-Sistani returned to Iraq after heart treatment in London to intervene for the first time in the bloody conflict, drawing thousands of followers who marched on Najaf and massed on its outskirts.
In the 24 hours before al-Sistani entered the holy city, more than 90 Iraqis were killed in fighting — including 27 killed when mortars barraged a mosque in neighboring Kufa, where thousands had gathered to march into Najaf in support of al-Sistani's mission.
Fighting eased after al-Sistani arrived, when the U.S. military and the Iraqi government called a 24-hour ceasefire.
The acceptance by the young, firebrand preacher al-Sadr — whose militia has been battling U.S. and Iraqi forces since Aug. 5 — doesn't necessarily mean an end to the crisis. He has agreed to peace proposals before, and they have quickly fallen apart.
But State Minister Qassim Dawoud, announcing the administration's acceptance, was optimistic.
U.S. and coalition forces will pull out of Najaf as soon as interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi orders them to leave, Dawoud said.
"Brothers, we have entered the door to peace," he said. He added that the government would not try to arrest al-Sadr, who was being sought for an alleged role in the slaying of a rival cleric last year.
The five-point plan called for Najaf and Kufa to be declared weapons-free cities, for all foreign forces to withdraw from Najaf, for police to be in charge of security, for the government to compensate those harmed by the fighting and for a census to be taken to prepare for elections expected in the country by January.
There was no immediate word if the U.S. military would accept the provisions on the agreement calling on its forces to leave Najaf.
Al-Sistani aide Hamed al-Khafaf announced al-Sadr's acceptance and suggested fighters from his Mahdi Army militia would leave the Imam Ali Shrine, the holy site they have used as a stronghold and refuge throughout the fighting.
"There will be a mechanism that will preserve the dignity of everyone in getting out of the holy shrine, and you'll see this in the coming hours," al-Khafaf told Al-Jazeera television.
The shrine, in Najaf's Old City, has been the center of fighting, and U.S. troops have tried to avoid damaging it, fearing it would anger Shiites.
After the cease-fire was called, one platoon of U.S. soldiers was holed up in a multistoried office-building, poking weapons out of broken windows and scanning devastated streets for any signs of militants. A handful took advantage of the quiet to sleep — a relative luxury after days of fierce clashes, according to AP photographer Jim MacMillan, who is embedded with the soldiers.
Al-Sistani's immense moral authority brings more hope for this peace plans than previous ones.
Al-Sistani, the most senior of four clerics in Iraq holding the rank of grand ayatollah, is one of the most respected men in the country, esteemed by Iraqis of all religious factions. He is more popular among Iraqi Shiites than al-Sadr, who is in his early 30s and of a far lower clerical rank.
Al-Sadr's fiery anti-U.S. message has drawn many poorer, disillusioned Shiites but he is seen by the Shiite mainstream as impulsive and too radical. Al-Sadr's followers have set up their own religious courts and arrested hundreds of people on charges including selling alcohol and music deemed immoral.
Al-Sistani has consistently opposed violence. He has also bucked the authority of the United States in the past, giving him credibility in the eyes of Shiites who consider the current Iraqi government beholden to the United States.
Thousands of Iraqis flocked to Najaf on Thursday after al-Sistani called for a peace march to the city. But the Iraqi government's police did not let them enter the holy city.
Late Thursday, al-Sistani asked the government to allow the demonstrators to visit the Imam Ali Shrine compound provided they leave by 10 a.m. Friday, al-Khafaf said.
Al-Sistani's 30-vehicle convoy drove 220 miles from the southern city of Basra to Najaf, joined by at least a thousand cars from towns along the way, where supporters on the street cheered the ayatollah.
From Wednesday morning until Thursday morning, 55 people were killed and 376 injured during clashes in Najaf, the Health Ministry said. At least 40 people have been killed in Kufa over the same period, including the victims in the mosque.
The military said Thursday that a U.S. soldier in Baghdad was killed by a mortar attack the night before. As of Wednesday, 964 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
It was not known who fired the mortars that struck the mosque in Kufa — a stronghold for al-Sadr's supporters — or whether it was an attempt to sabotage al-Sistani's peace effort.
After the mortar attack, another group of thousands of al-Sadr supporters from Kufa to Najaf came under fire from an Iraqi National Guard base. At least three people were killed and 46 wounded. Witnesses said armed al-Sadr supporters were near the marchers when the shooting broke out.
In another march, this one in Najaf, some demonstrators shot at Iraqi forces, sparking a gunbattle, witnesses said. The fighting killed 15 people and wounded 65 others, according to Hussein Hadi, an official in al-Hakeem hospital in Najaf.
Thousands of Shiites had gathered at the mosque in Kufa, an al-Sadr stronghold, to march to Najaf when the mortar rounds hit. At least 63 people were wounded along with the 27 dead.
"This is a criminal act. We just wanted to launch a peaceful demonstration," said Hani Hashem, bringing an injured friend to the hospital.
Blood was splattered on the pavement in a courtyard beside the mosque and a pair of sandals was left nearby. Shrapnel from the explosions tore small chunks out of walls and the pavement, but the compound did not appear to have suffered serious structural damage.
Al-Sadr's aides blamed the mortars at the mosque on U.S. troops.
A U.S. military spokesman, Marine Capt. Carrie Batson, denied the Americans fired the barrage. A U.S. military official said it was possible that rebels firing at nearby Iraqi forces overshot their target and hit the mosque.
In other violence, saboteurs attacked about 20 oil pipelines in southern Iraq late Wednesday, reducing exports from the key oil producing region by at least a half, an official with the state-run South Oil Co. said Thursday on condition of anonymity.