Fri 27 August, 2004 16:02
By Michael Georgy
NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - Shi'ite fighters have left the holiest shrine in the Iraqi city of Najaf and begun turning in their weapons, after tens of thousands of pilgrims celebrated a peace agreement that ended a bloody rebellion.
Religious authorities locked the doors of the Imam Ali mosque after the Mehdi Army militia of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr left. The fighters had defied U.S. military firepower and the interim Iraqi government for three weeks.
Iraq's most revered cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, made a dramatic return to Najaf on Thursday and persuaded Sadr to accept a peace deal to halt the fighting, after a day of violence in which 110 Iraqis were killed and 501 wounded.
Militants tossed AK-47 assault rifles and mortar launchers into wooden carts being pushed around near the shrine. Mosque loudspeaker announcements in Sadr's name gave the order.
Al Arabiya television said Sadr's representatives had handed over the keys to the mosque, Iraq's holiest Shi'ite shrine .
A Reuters correspondent there said Iraqi police took control of the area around the mosque, as envisaged under the deal.
Several Mehdi militants refused to give up their guns while some U.S. troops -- who are supposed to leave the southern city in line with the peace deal -- were seen nearby.
By mid-afternoon, the narrow streets around the mosque were relatively quiet, destroyed and blackened buildings a testament to the fierce fighting that killed hundreds and drove world oil prices to record highs.
But a big question mark hangs over what role Sadr and his militia want to play in Iraq, especially ahead of elections in January. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi gave them an amnesty under the peace deal. Sadr draws formidable support among Iraq's downtrodden majority Shi'ites.
After the bitter fighting with U.S. marines, many Mehdi militants still breathed defiance on Friday.
"We will support whatever Ayatollah Sistani and Sayyed Moqtada have agreed. But we will still slit the throat s of the Americans," said one militiaman, Hussein Taama.
Another held an AK-47 rifle which he said was his personal weapon that he would not give up: "I will keep this warm and wait for Sayyed Moqtada's order."
Iraqi police took reporters to a room that had been used as an Islamic courthouse by Sadr's supporters. Inside the courthouse, about 200 metres (yards) from the sacred shrine, were 15 bloated, blackened corpses covered in flies.
"Cover your noses. This is where the Mehdi Army slit the throats of people and then left them there to rot," one policeman said. But the Islamic court's chief administrator, Hashim Abu Reef, denied the police accusations.
"We denounce this charge. This government is very capable of trying to frame us. Those corpses are our fighters which we could not wash or move because the Iraqi government and Americans cut off the electricity and water," he said.
"There is also one woman who was passing by the shrine and killed by a sniper. We can identify each and every body."
T he Najaf uprising has been a stark reminder to the interim government and the United States, which led the war to depose Saddam Hussein last year, of the huge hurdles ahead in Iraq.
While fighting may have ended for now in Najaf, elsewhere it had not. Insurgents attacked U.S. troops with hand grenades in Baghdad on Friday, wounding 12 soldiers, the U.S. military said.
President George W. Bush acknowledged for the first time on Thursday he had erred over postwar conditions in Iraq, the New York Times reported. It quoted him as saying in an interview that he made "a miscalculation of what the conditions would be".
Tens of thousands of Shi'ites arrived on the outskirts of Najaf on Thursday, heeding a call by Sistani to march on the city. Just after dawn on Friday, they walked past dozens of pockmarked and destroyed buildings to the mosque.
Spent ammunition littered the city centre, which a day earlier had been infested with snipers.
Many pilgrims were overcome at the mosque. Some kissed the ornate walls inside and wept after they queued to get in.
"We pray today that Najaf will recover. The military operations have only brought destruction," said Kassem Hameed, a 52-year-old oil worker from the southern city of Basra.
The peace deal came after a day of bloodshed. The Health Ministry said 110 people were killed and 501 wounded in mortar and shooting attacks in Najaf and nearby Kufa on Thursday.
Sistani arrived in Iraq on Wednesday after three weeks in London for heart treatment. The uprising had erupted as he left his adopted home in Najaf, Iraq's centre of Shi'ite learning.
Kidnappers killed Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, the Italian government confirmed on Thursday.
Al Jazeera television said Baldoni's kidnappers killed him because Italy refused to withdraw troops from Iraq. Scores of foreigners have been taken hostage in Iraq in the last five months. Most have been released but several have been killed.