May 27, 2004
NAJAF, Iraq - The U.S.-led coalition agreed Thursday to suspend offensive operations in Najaf after Iraqi leaders struck a deal with radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to end a bloody standoff threatening some of Iraq's holiest Shiite shrines.
Coalition forces will pull out of most of Najaf once Iraqi security forces reenter the city and assume control of strategic buildings from al-Sadr's militia, coalition spokesman Dan Senor told reporters in Baghdad.
"Until that time, coalition forces will suspend offensive operations but will continue to provide security by carrying out presence patrols," Senor said.
Once Iraqi security forces move in, U.S. troops will "reposition" outside the city, though units will remain in coalition offices, at government buildings and Iraqi police stations, Senor said.
Iraqi leaders had urged the Americans to accept the agreement, although it does not require al-Sadr immediately to disband his militia and surrender to authorities to face charges in the April 2003 assassination of a moderate cleric - key U.S. demands to end the standoff.
Instead, the future of al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army and the status of the arrest warrant will be discussed during talks between the cleric and the Shiite religious and political leaders.
That makes it unlikely that either step will be taken until sovereignty transfers from the coalition to a new Iraqi government at the end of next month. For weeks, U.S. officials had publicly denigrated al-Sadr as a "thug" and repeatedly said the mission of U.S. forces was to "kill or capture" him.
A Shiite member of the Governing Council, Abdul-Karim Mahoud al-Mohammedawi, warned that arresting al-Sadr would "complicate the issues" and lead to "an unending revolution."
The announcement came after days of heavy fighting in and around Najaf that damaged Shia Islam's holiest site, the Imam Ali Shrine. The damage was minor, and U.S. officials accused al-Sadr followers of causing it - but it highlighted that danger that the crackdown on al-Sadr could raise widespread Shiite anger.
By hiding in and firing from mosques, a few al-Sadr fighters were able to hold out in this center of Shiite theology and scholarship, knowing the Americans could not afford the political damage of an all-out assault at a time when aggressive U.S. tactics had drawn international criticism.
Also Wednesday, three Marines were killed in Anbar province "while conducting security and stability operations," the military said, declining to release further details. The province includes the western suburbs of Baghdad as well as Fallujah, Ramadi and Qaim.
Three Shiite members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council - Salama al-Khafaji, Ahmad Chalabi and al-Mohammedawi - arrived in Najaf to help firm up the agreement with al-Sadr and encourage the Americans to pull their forces from the city.
The three issued a statement condemning the "continuation of military operations" and calling on the Americans to "to stop being stubborn and abandon unattainable demands" in dealing with al-Sadr.
The three planned to stage a sit-in at the Sahla mosque in nearby Kufa until the Americans leave, al-Khafaji said. U.S. soldiers raided the mosque last weekend, seizing weapons and ammunition stored there by al-Sadr's fighters.
Iraq's national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, a Shiite, declined to say whether the discussions could lead to throwing out charges against al-Sadr or even the disbandment of his militia.
Asked if al-Sadr might have a political role in the new Iraq, al-Rubaie said: "I do not see any reason that prevents any political movement that uses democratic means and political activities from being part of the Iraqi state and from participating in the building of Iraq."
Mohammed al-Musawi, one of several Shiite figures who have been trying to arrange a peaceful end to the standoff, said the deal included transforming al-Sadr's militia into a political organization, creating a new security organization to protect the city, delaying prosecution of al-Sadr until an elected government takes office next year, withdrawing U.S. forces from Najaf, and ending the open display of weaponry on the streets.
Al-Sadr's revolt has stirred up violence in formerly peaceful Shiite areas south of Baghdad, further challenging U.S.-led forces who were already battling Sunni Muslim insurgents in central, western and northern Iraq.
American commanders have been eager to quell the violence in the Shiite areas before they return sovereignty to a new Iraqi government on June 30.
It wasn't known how much al-Sadr was swayed by the pre-dawn raid in which U.S. troops arrested al-Sadr's key lieutenant.
Riyadh al-Nouri was seized during a raid on his Najaf home and offered no resistance, U.S. officials said.
His arrest was a major blow to the al-Mahdi Army, which has been fighting coalition forces in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and in the Shiite heartland south of the capital.
Clashes since Tuesday between U.S. troops and militia fighters killed 24 people and wounded nearly 50, hospital and militia officials said.
Al-Sadr launched his uprising after the occupation authority launched a crackdown on his movement. An Iraqi judge has issued an arrest warrant charging both al-Sadr and al-Nouri in the 2003 assassination of moderate cleric Abdul Majid al-Khoei.
Al-Sadr said he was making the offer to pull back his militiamen because of "the tragic condition" in Najaf after weeks of fighting and the damage suffered by the Imam Ali mosque.
The young Shiite radical also demanded "broad discussions" within the Shiite community over the future of his militia and that the legal proceedings against him be deferred until then.
Fighting around some of the holiest cities of Shia Islam has angered many Shiites in Iraq and elsewhere and has led to calls for both sides to pull back from the shrines.
U.S. officials have expressed their desire for a peaceful settlement to the standoff but have insisted that al-Sadr disband his "illegal militia" and submit to "justice before an Iraqi court."