Insurgents Quit Mosque in Najaf After Peace Deal

By DEXTER FILKINS

The New York Times

August 28, 2004

NAJAF, Iraq, Aug. 27 - An uneasy peace settled on this city on Friday as guerrillas loyal to the insurgent cleric Moktada al-Sadr streamed out of the Imam Ali Shrine before a cordon of American troops, ceding control of the Shiite holy site to the mainstream religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and appearing to end a bloody three-week standoff that left much of the area in ruins.

The surrender of the shrine, carried out under the terms of a peace deal struck by the two clerics the night before, unfolded in a theatrical fashion at 8:30 a.m., after an urgent appeal by Mr. Sadr.

With thousands of civilians having poured into the shrine from all over Iraq, some of them weeping and kissing the walls of the damaged building, the insurgents who had commandeered the holy site for nearly a month joined the departing pilgrims and headed out through its vaulting gates.

"In the name of Allah, my brothers in the Mahdi Army, I beg you, if civilians are in the shrine, leave with them, and leave your guns behind," intoned a voice from the shrine's loudspeaker, reading a message from Mr. Sadr. "This is an order that you must obey."

With that, the fighters, many of them hollow-eyed and hunted-looking after days under fire, walked into the streets and left the city, moving through what appeared to be an agreed-upon exit route. Others simply hung about, boasting of what they told themselves was an epic stand against the American Army.

They stood in a scene of devastation. Hotels had crumbled into the street. Cars lay blackened and twisted where they had been hit. Goats and donkeys lay dead on the sidewalks. Pilgrims from out of town and locals coming from home walked the streets agape, shaking their heads, stunned by the devastation before them.

As the Mahdi Army fighters did not surrender themselves, neither did they give up their guns. Instead, they took the assault rifles and rocket launchers with which they had commandeered the shrine and loaded them onto donkey carts, covering them with blankets, grain sacks and television sets, and sending them away.

Hours later, Mahdi fighters, some still dressed in their signature black uniforms, could be seen stashing rocket launchers in crates and pushing them into roadside shops.

As the fighters streamed out of the city, the American troops who had fought their way to within 75 yards of the shrine in some of the war's most ferocious fighting kept their distance, neither shooting the militiamen nor arresting them. American commanders said they were under orders to arrest no one, least of all the Mahdi insurgents.

Later in the day, obviously tipped off about a cache of guns, a platoon of American troops rumbled up Rasool Street to the gates of the shrine and began searching sidewalks and cars.

Aides to Ayatollah Sistani, who brokered the peace agreement upon returning to the city on Thursday, moved into the shrine early Friday and told Mr. Sadr's men that they were in charge.

"We are taking over the shrine," one of Ayatollah Sistani's senior clerics said. "We will not be making another comment."

By early evening here, aides to the ayatollah were fully in control of the shrine itself. The Iraqi police, backed by American troops and tanks, converged on the area around the shrine, with the Americans moving to within 75 yards and then dropping back.

The reassertion of Iraqi government control, symbolized by the entry of the police, was one of the crucial demands made by Ayatollah Sistani of Mr. Sadr.

The agreement also calls for the Mahdi Army to withdraw from neighboring Kufa, for American forces to pull out of Najaf and for the Iraqi government to compensate Iraqis for losses sustained during the fighting.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell praised the peace agreement, saying it demonstrated the new working relationship between the United States and the Iraqi government. American military pressure, he said in an interview on Fox News Radio, "shaped this situation to the point where the leadership of the Iraqi interim government, working with the Ayatollah Sistani, could bring about a resolution that did not require troops to go into that mosque."

The Mahdi Army fighters streamed out of the shrine Friday morning in various states of physical and emotional distress. One fighter, with a comrade on each side, limped out, bloodied and wearing a bandage on his right hand. Another fighter, dead for some time, was carried out on a stretcher.

Some of the young men seemed visibly reduced by the siege. And after three weeks of relentless Americans assaults, the number of Mahdi Army fighters in Najaf's Old City had fallen to just a few hundred from several thousand.

But for most of the Mahdi fighters still standing, morale seemed undiminished. In their days battling the Americans, they had constructed their own mythic tale about themselves, as the stalwart defenders of the shrine against a foreign army and its local satraps. It mattered little that they were vacating the place they had sought to defend or that the city had been destroyed in the event.

"Today is a victory," said Arkan Rahim, a 30-year-old Mahdi fighter, standing amid the wreckage near the shrine. "We didn't surrender the shrine to the Americans, the biggest army in the world. We didn't surrender it to the Iraqi police. We protected it for our religious leaders."

It was clear, from a sampling of the opinions of people milling in and around the shrine today, that many Iraqis rejected that view.

"I blame Moktada al-Sadr for what happened here, and the Iraqi government, too," said an old Iraqi man, identifying himself as Abu Muhammad, who had traveled from the city of Kut to show his support for Ayatollah Sistani. "We, the simple people, are paying for their mistakes."

Mr. Muhammad seemed to speak for many Iraqis here, who in dozens of interviews over the last several days denounced not only Mr. Sadr but the Iraqi prime minister, Ayad Allawi, as well. With their homes and businesses in ruins, it seemed for many Iraqis that most of Iraqi's new leaders had failed.

"Look at all the damage," an Iraqi man said to a friend as he walked down a street whose every building had been broken and crushed. "Let God take revenge on the Americans for this."

While the militiamen began heading home, the larger mystery seemed to be the commitment of Mr. Sadr. The upstart cleric began his latest uprising on Aug. 5, when his men attacked a Najaf police station after the arrest of one of his aides. The August uprising was his second; in April, he called on his followers to expel the Americans after the closing of his newspaper.

This time, as before, the Americans and the Iraqi government, fearing his surging popularity, allowed him and his followers to go free in exchange for a promise not to cause any more trouble.

And this time, as before, Mr. Sadr's commitment to the peace deal he had signed seemed shaky at best. After his meeting with Ayatollah Sistani on Thursday night, Mr. Sadr dropped from view, making neither public appearances nor statements of support.

On Friday, senior clerics around Ayatollah Sistani seemed determined to hold Mr. Sadr to his word, sharing with a reporter a copy of the peace deal he had signed the night before.

"This agreement is by the order of the religious leadership," said a note signed by Mr. Sadr on the bottom of the agreement, "and I am ready to obey all orders with all my respect."

Under the agreement, the Americans are to withdraw their forces from Najaf while Mr. Sadr's fighters are obliged to leave Najaf and the neighboring city of Kufa and promise not to come back. The Iraqi police will take control in both places, and the Iraqi government must pay compensation for the losses caused by the fighting. Mr. Sadr also agreed to cooperate in preparing for the country's first nationwide elections, to be held by Jan. 31.

Indeed, the decision to allow Mr. Sadr to go free seemed to be based on the hope that the young leader, who commands a large following in Iraq's Shiite slums, could be coaxed into the political mainstream. So far, he has shown little interest in taking part in the fledgling democratic process that the Americans are trying to nurture here, rejecting an offer just a few weeks ago to join a national conference.

For Iraqis, particularly those living or working in the vicinity of the shrine, the more immediate concern was to pick up the remnants of their old lives. While the wreckage inspired anger in many here, for others it prompted mainly despair. At a Najaf intersection, an Iraqi named Fadel Hejab spent much of the day trying to reassemble his livelihood: a small metal cart from which he sold light bulbs and electrical fixtures and parts.

Somehow, the fighting had tossed Mr. Hejab's stand out into the street, blown it over and smashed it flat. Crouched over the mess, he paused to consider his future.

"I will try to fix it and start again," he said. "What else shall I do?"