Thu 26 August, 2004 18:23
By Michael Georgy
NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq's most revered cleric has arrived in Najaf to try to end a bloody three-week uprising but attacks on crowds of Shi'ites that killed at least 74 inflamed tensions as tens of thousands converged on the city.
Al Arabiya television said on Thursday Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had begun peace negotiations with rebel Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose fighters have refused to lay down their weapons and leave Najaf's sacred Imam Ali mosque.
The bloodshed in Najaf and nearby Kufa came as Sistani's efforts to try to persuade the Mehdi Army militia to leave Iraq's holiest Shi'ite shrine appeared to be gaining momentum. Sistani has unveiled a plan to end the rebellion.
At least 15 Sistani supporters were shot dead 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," witne ss Hazim Kareem told Reuters at Najaf's hospital, where bodies dripping with blood 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 Sadr supporters as hundreds of his men inside prepared to march on Najaf, officials said.
Shi'ite marchers were fired on in Kufa around the same time and at least 20 were killed, a Reuters photographer on the scene said. It was unclear who carried out the attacks.
Iraq's health ministry said the latest figures available showed 74 people had been killed in Thursday's attacks.
Television pictures showed dozens of wounded men lying in pools of blood around Kufa mosque. Fighting in Najaf, however, appeared to have eased as a government ceasefire took effect.
The U.S. military said it had suspended offensive operations at the request of the Iraqi government.
Sistani drove into Najaf from the southern city of Basra in a huge convoy, guarded by do zens 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, many appearing to respond to Sistani's call to rescue the holy city, converged on Najaf from several regions, witnesses said.
But Sistani, 73, told them to wait at the city's outskirts.
Both the moderate Sistani and the radical Sadr have called on their supporters to go to Najaf, where hundreds have been killed in the past three weeks in fighting between the Mehdi Army militia and U.S. and Iraqi government forces.
The clashes have driven oil prices to record highs and undermined interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
Aide Hamed al-Khafaf told reporters Iranian-born Sistani's peace plan called for all groups in Najaf to lay down their arms and for U.S. forces to leave the city.
Sistani arrived back from London on Wednesday after heart treatment for three weeks. The uprising erupted just as he left his adopted home in Najaf, Iraq's centre of Shi'ite learning.
ANOTHER OLIVE BRANCH
Allawi said he had ordered his forces to observe a 24-hour ceasefire in Najaf from 3 p.m. (midday British time) to help the talks.
Najaf's governor said military operations would resume 24 hours later if no agreement was reached.
In a statement, he said representatives of Sadr -- who has appeared ready to accept peace proposals in the past only to back away -- had indicated they would accept Sistani's plan.
Allawi said Mehdi 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 Moqtada al-Sadr if he chooses to stop the military confrontation," Allawi said.
Sistani's followers say the cleric's intervention could break the Najaf deadlock and ensure a peaceful resolution after U.S. firepower failed to drive rebels fro m the mosque. The elderly cleric ended another uprising in April and May.
Sadr, aged only about 30, has challenged the collegiate leadership of the Najaf clergy headed by Sistani and styled himself as the face of anti-U.S. Shi'ite resistance.