Militants Remove Arms From Najaf Shrine

From Associated Press

Los Angeles Times

7:34 AM PDT, August 20, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq — Militiamen loyal to rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr today removed their weapons from the revered Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf as part of an arrangement aimed at ending a 2-week-old anti-U.S. uprising centered on the holy site.

Iraq's highest Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, agreed to take control of the shrine, which al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia turned into a stronghold and refuge during their fight with U.S. forces.

Al-Sadr aides were working out a handover of the keys to the site with al-Sistani followers. One aide said the keys could be given later today.

By this evening, militants had withdrawn all their weapons from the shrine compound, where civilians and unarmed militia members mingled in peace. In previous days, the walled compound had been filled with hundreds of chanting and bellicose gunmen.

The surprise pullback came a day after Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, threatened to storm the shrine, a move certain to cause bloodshed and infuriate Shiites across Iraq. On Thursday and overnight, U.S. warplanes bombed militia positions in Najaf in fighting that killed 77 people and wounded 70 others.

But after daybreak, Najaf was the quietest in weeks, and Allawi backed off his threats, saying a peaceful resolution was possible.

"We are not going to attack the mosque, we are not going to attack Muqtada al-Sadr and the mosque, evidently we are not going to do this," Allawi told BBC radio today. "The olive branch is still extended, he can take advantage of the olive branch."

Al-Sadr has so far rejected the other main government demand -- that he disband his Mahdi Army. But surrendering the shrine would likely mean the end of the fighting that erupted on Aug. 5. U.S. forces had ruled out an American assault on the site and had faced tough fighting in a vast cemetery nearby from which al-Sadr fighters fired on American and Iraqi troops.

Interior Ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim said this evening that police entered the shrine and arrested 400 armed militants without incident. However, reporters who were inside the shrine throughout the afternoon said not a single police officer entered the compound and no arrests were made.

Handing over the shrine to al-Sistani's religious authorities appeared to be a compromise.

"We don't want to appease the government. ... We want to appease the Iraqi people," an aide to al-Sadr, Ahmed al-Shaibany, said earlier today as he headed to al-Sistani's office in the city to discuss handing over the key.

An aide to al-Sistani, who has been undergoing medical treatment in London, said al-Sistani agreed but that details of a transfer still needed to be worked out.

"If they want to hand over the keys to the Shiite religious leadership, then the religious leadership will welcome this in order to defuse the crisis," Sheik Hamed Khafaf said.

In a sermon read on his behalf in the nearby Kufa Mosque, al-Sadr said he wanted the religious authorities to take control of the Old City from his Mahdi Army, though he also called on all Muslims to rise up if the shrine is attacked.

"I call on the Arab and Islamic people: If you see the dome of the holy Imam Ali Shrine shelled, don't be lax in resisting the occupier in your countries," he said. It was unclear if al-Sadr was calling for worldwide attacks on U.S. forces -- which he often refers to as Iraq's occupier.

The violence in Najaf between the insurgents and a combined U.S.-Iraqi force has angered many in Iraq's Shiite majority and proven a major challenge to Allawi's fledgling interim government as it tries to build credibility and prove it is not a U.S. puppet.

Earlier today, U.S. tanks were on the streets late morning, but residents reported seeing some of the Mahdi Army militia pulling out of the Old City.

U.S. forces said they were still geared up for a fight.

"We are continuing to do planning and preparations for continuous offensive operations to get Mahdi militia destroyed, to capture Muqtada al-Sadr and to turn the holy shrine back to the Iraqi people," Lt. Col. Myles Miyamasu, of the 1st Cavalry Division, told CNN today.

Explosions and gunbattles raged in Najaf all day Thursday. During the night, warplanes were "clearing Muqtada militia positions" east of the shrine, U.S. Marine Capt. Carrie Batson said. At least 30 explosions shook the Old City.

Before dawn, U.S. forces also fired precision-guided bombs at militiamen who were firing mortars at U.S. troops in the neighboring cemetery and Old City, Batson said.

Earlier Thursday, militants bombarded a Najaf police station with mortar rounds, killing seven police and injuring 35 others. Another round hit near the same station today, but inflicted no casualties.

In Baghdad, troops from the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division pulled out of the Sadr City slum, scene of fierce fighting between U.S. forces and supporters of the rebel cleric the day before, when five fighters and five civilians were killed.

U.S. Capt. Brian O'Malley said soldiers "went all the way through the city and back" but pulled out today to respect the Muslim Sabbath.

In Fallujah, U.S. warplanes launched two airstrikes today on the troubled Iraqi city, considered a hotbed of Sunni Muslim insurgents. Two people were killed and six injured in the first attack just after midnight, said Dia'a al-Jumeili, a doctor at Fallujah's main hospital.

A second warplane fired at least one missile into an industrial area of the city later this morning. It exploded in an open field, leaving a crater and spraying shrapnel across the doors of nearby automobile shops, but causing no serious damage.

Shrapnel from the second blast also hit an ice cream factory, wounding three people, said Adel Khamis, another doctor at Fallujah General Hospital.

U.S. forces have routinely bombed targets in the city it says are insurgent safehouses or strongholds. Fallujah is located some 40 miles west of Baghdad, witnesses said.

Elsewhere in Iraq, militants attacked oil facilities in the north and south and fired mortars at U.S. Embassy offices in the capital, injuring one American.

An aide to al-Sadr said kidnappers have promised to release a U.S. journalist abducted in the southern city of Nasiriyah on Aug. 13.

The kidnappers, calling themselves the Martyrs Brigade, threatened a day earlier to kill New York journalist Micah Garen within 48 hours. But al-Sadr aide Sheik Aws al-Khafaji said he spoke with the militants, who told him they would release Garen later today.

Meanwhile, the military reported today that two U.S. Marines were killed in action in Iraq's volatile Anbar province.

One Marine died Wednesday and the second on Thursday, it said. As of Thursday, 947 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the U.S. Defense Department.