Thursday, August 26, 2004


Aide: Al-Sistani Brokers Najaf Peace Deal

Associated Press Writer

NAJAF, Iraq (AP) -- Rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr agreed Thursday to a peace deal presented by top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani to end three weeks of fighting in the holy city of Najaf, according to a top aide to al-Sistani.

Al-Sistani, the most influential cleric among Iraq's Shiite majority, reached the deal in direct talks with al-Sadr in the evening, only hours after making a dramatic return to Najaf.

The five-point plan called for Najaf and Kufa to be declared weapons-free cities, for all foreign forces to withdraw from Najaf, for police to be in charge of security, for the government to compensate those harmed by the fighting and for a census to be taken to prepare for elections expected in the country by January.

"Mr. Muqtada al-Sadr agreed to the initiative of his eminence al-Sistani," Hamed al-Khafaf told reporters at a news conference outside the house where al-Sistani was staying here. "You will hear good news soon from the government and Mr. Muqtada al-Sadr."

"It's the same initiative that we had proposed ... almost the same initiative has been agreed upon," al-Khafaf said.

Following the announcement, the Iraqi interim government called an emergency news conference in Baghdad to discuss Najaf.

Al-Sistani, who had been abroad in London for medical treatment during much of the fighting, returned Thursday with a new plan to end the violence.

The fighting, which has spread to other Shiite communities throughout Iraq, has killed scores of civilians, nearly paralyzed the city and caused the biggest crisis yet for the new government of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

A long-threatened government raid on the holy Imam Ali Shrine here, where the militants have sought refuge, appeared to grow increasingly likely in recent days as peace initiatives broke down and the militants refused to honor a promise to withdraw.

But al-Sistani's return, and his apparent determination to end the bloodshed in his city, brought new hope for a peaceful resolution.

"There will be a mechanism that will preserve the dignity of everyone in getting out of the holy shrine, and you'll see this in the coming hours," al-Khafaf told Al-Jazeera television.

The fighting here continued up until al-Sistani's arrival Thursday afternoon, when the government and rebels separately agreed to a 24-hour cease fire to give peace efforts a chance.

More than 90 people were killed in the 24 hours before al-Sistani's arrival, according to health officials, including 27 people killed when mortars hit the main mosque in nearby Kufa, where thousands had gathered in preparation to march to Najaf in support of al-Sistani.

The U.S. military and Iraqi government have backed al-Sistani's peace mission, but they have not said whether they would agree to his proposal. The government has long demanded that al-Sadr disband his Mahdi Army militia and join the country's political process, a condition al-Sadr has refused to agree to.

Al-Sadr has agreed to one other peace deal that fell apart and later said he would pull his followers from the shrine, but the militants remained and the fighting has continued.

But all sides appear to be hoping the immense authority of al-Sistani can keep a deal together. The 75-year-old al-Sistani, who has long refused to intervene directly in the standoff between al-Sadr and the United States, has much wider support among Iraq's Shiites than al-Sadr, a much younger and lower-ranking cleric.

Al-Sistani arrived here in a 30-vehicle convoy that drove in from Basra, cheered by thousands of supporters in towns along the way. Heeding al-Sistani's calls, thousands more came from their hometowns to Najaf and gathered on its outskirts.

Late Thursday, Al-Sistani asked the government to allow them in to visit the sealed-off shrine compound provided they leave again by 10 a.m. Friday, al-Khafaf said.

© 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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