Fri 27 August, 2004 02:29
By Michael Georgy
NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq's most revered Shi'ite leader has persuaded a rebel cleric to accept a deal ending a three-week uprising in Najaf, after returning to the holy city amid bloody clashes that have killed at least 74 people.
Iraq's government said it had also agreed to the deal brokered by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, under which radical Shi'ite militiamen would leave the sacred Imam Ali shrine in Najaf and U.S. forces would also pull out of the city.
"We are three-quarters towards the end of this crisis," said Hamed al-Khafaf, senior aide to Sistani who entered Najaf in a huge convoy of vehicles earlier on Thursday for talks with radical rival Moqtada al-Sadr.
He said Sadr, whose fighters have been holed up in the Imam Ali mosque and battling U.S. and Iraqi forces in the alleys outside, agreed to all points of Sistani's peace plan to end fighting that has killed hundreds, driven oil prices to record highs and undermined Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's authority.
The plan involv es Sadr's Mehdi Army militiamen leaving the sacred Imam Ali shrine by 10 a.m. (7 a.m. British time) on Friday. U.S. forces are also to leave Najaf, with security being turned over to Iraqi police. Najaf is to be declared a weapons-free zone, and the government is to compensate victims of the fighting.
Iraqi Minister of State Kasim Daoud told a news conference that Sadr would not face arrest following the deal. Earlier this year an Iraqi arrest warrant was issued for Sadr in connection with the murder of a rival cleric in Najaf last year.
"He remains as free as any citizen of Iraq," Daoud said.
He added that U.S.-led forces would leave Najaf as soon as Allawi ordered them to.
The government also agreed to Sistani's request that Shi'ite marchers be allowed to enter the shrine. Tens of thousands of Shi'ites have converged on Najaf, heeding calls by Sistani and Sadr to march on the city.
DAY OF BLOODSHED
The deal came after a day of bloodshed.
At least 15 Sistani supporters were shot dead in Najaf a nd 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," witness 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 several were killed, a Reuters photographer on the scene said. It was unclear who carried out the attacks.
The Health Ministry said at least 74 people were killed in Thursday's attacks in Najaf and Kufa and hundreds wounded.
Late on Thursday Al Jazeera reported Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, taken hostage in an ambush near Najaf, was killed by his captors.
On Tuesday , the Islamic Army in Iraq gave Italy 48 hours to withdraw its 2,700 troops from Iraq or Baldoni would be killed. Italy refused to bow to the demands.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi condemned Baldoni's killing as "barbaric".
Sistani drove into Najaf from the southern city of Basra in a huge convoy, guarded by dozens 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 travelled to Najaf to welcome him. But Sistani, 73, told them to wait at the city's outskirts.
Sistani arrived back on Wednesday from three weeks in London for heart treatment. The uprising erupted just as he left his adopted home in Najaf, Iraq's centre of Shi'ite learning.
Allawi said he had ordered his forces to observe a 24-hour ceasefire in Najaf from 3 p.m. to help the talks. The U.S. military said it was suspending offensive operations, and fighting waned on Th ursday evening after the earlier tension.
Allawi added that Mehdi Army 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 said the cleric's intervention would be crucial in getting the deal to last and ensuring a peaceful resolution after U.S. firepower failed to drive rebels from the mosque. The elderly cleric helped end an earlier uprising by Sadr's supporters 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.