NAJAF, Iraq – Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani resumed control over the Imam Ali shrine Friday while a final few militiamen loyal to a rebel Shiite cleric exited the compound after a deadly three-week standoff with U.S.-led and Iraqi forces.
A group of clerics representing Sistani – the top Shiite religious authority in Iraq – reclaimed the keys to the shrine from the forces of young cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Meanwhile, Iraqi police and soldiers took up positions around the complex, as U.S. troops that were still as close as 50 yards away pulled back Friday afternoon.
The actions marked a peaceful end to the lengthy confrontation, which presented a serious challenge to interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and put the gold-domed mosque, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, at risk.
Al-Sadr agreed early Friday to order his armed followers to leave the mosque and put down their weapons as part of an agreement brokered by Sistani to end weeks of combat in Najaf’s normally tranquil “old city” district. Tens of thousands of worshippers poured through the mosque complex for prayers Friday morning as the sudden deal came together. Sistani had summoned the faithful from around Iraq to come to Najaf to march in support of peace.
Al-Sadr claims victory
Despite the exit of fighters from the shrine, an al-Sadr spokesman said the standoff’s ending amounted to a victory because al-Sadr had agreed to remove his men under a religious order from Sistani – not as a result of pressure from the Americans and the interim Iraqi government.
The agreement, accepted by the Allawi government, also appears to allow al-Sadr’s militia to remain armed and for the cleric to remain free, despite earlier U.S. and Iraqi vows to arrest him on suspicion of being involved in the slaying of a rival cleric last year.
The Bush administration Friday praised the agreement, with Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking on Fox News Radio, welcoming what he called “a resolution that did not require troops to go into that mosque.”
At the same time, Pentagon officials acknowledged that with al-Sadr’s militia remaining at least partly armed and intact, the outcome was far from ideal from a U.S. standpoint. Throughout the standoff, U.S. military officers in Iraq had said the only acceptable outcome was a full defeat of al-Sadr’s forces and the discrediting of the cleric himself.
In a document released by Sistani’s office detailing the terms, the elder cleric, who had just returned to Najaf Thursday after three weeks of medical treatment in Britain for a heart condition, demanded the departure of al-Sadr’s fighters and “foreign forces” from Najaf and neighboring Kufa, an al-Sadr stronghold.
Sistani said Iraqi police should be solely in charge of security in the two cities and he urged the Iraqi government to compensate residents whose properties were damaged during the fighting, which included mortar strikes by al-Sadr’s men and aerial bombing and tank fire by U.S. forces.
Al-Sadr signed the list of demands, saying he was “ready to follow and execute them.”
During three weeks of fighting, al-Sadr’s forces took refuge in the sacred mosque compound. U.S. and Iraqi forces moved closer as time elapsed. But they never made a final push, apparently because of concerns about the repercussions if the holy site were damaged or destroyed.
Getting al-Sadr’s militia men out of the shrine offers some breathing room for the 2-month-old Allawi government and seems certain to enhance the standing of the 73-year-old Sistani.
Left to be seen, however, is whether the standoff will be the last confrontation between the rebel cleric’s forces and the government and what role, if any, al-Sadr will play in Iraqi electoral politics.
During the three weeks of battles, U.S. officials say they killed more than 500 of al-Sadr’s militiamen, a figure that al-Sadr’s side says is greatly exaggerated. Eleven U.S. troops were killed and more than 100 were wounded.
By late afternoon, two U.S. tanks remained stationed along the main avenue into the old city. But quickly taking the place of the American troops was a growing contingent of Iraqi police officers who poured into the old city in SUVs and pickup trucks, the barrels of their automatic weapons poking out like quills.
With the halt in fighting, the full scope of damage became clear along the streets and narrow alleys of Najaf’s old city, which serves as the commercial center for the throngs of Shiite pilgrims who make their way each year to the twin-minaret shrine that is believed to have been erected in the eighth century.
Every direction offered a panorama of destruction: half-demolished buildings, fallen facades, an obstacle course of rubble. The odor of decomposing bodies hung faintly over the scene.
Iraqi police said they had discovered at least 10 bodies in a religious court used by al-Sadr’s group. Police said the discovery was evidence of summary executions by al-Sadr’s forces, which used the court for punishing people outside Iraq’s legal system. Police summoned reporters to visit the building, in an alley a block from the mosque.
Spokesmen for the al-Sadr group said the bodies were actually those of fighters and supporters who had been killed during the fighting but had not yet been buried. Some journalists were kept from entering, but the stench of decaying flesh reached the alley outside the building. One reporter who went inside said he counted as many as 16 bodies.
To the south of the mosque compound, which appeared to have suffered cosmetic damage, two blocks of hotels lay gutted and broken. At least 20 hotels were damaged or destroyed, including several that were being built as part of a development plan for Najaf’s old city that began prior to the U.S.-led invasion.
To the north, along the main commercial street into the old city, almost every structure was damaged. Storefronts were charred and crumpled, roofs and ceilings caved in and some upper floors were missing entirely.
Only an hour after handing in his machine gun, one of the pro-al-Sadr fighters, 26-year-old Ali Adai, said it would be difficult to go back to his job driving a taxi. He said his taxi, a Volvo, was destroyed in the fighting, along with the family’s home.
Adai, his left elbow and head bandaged from what he said were shrapnel wounds, stood in front of the mosque and shrugged when asked what he would do now instead of driving, or fighting.
After some thought, he gestured toward the shattered buildings surrounding the compound. Maybe, he said, there would soon be construction work available.
“The Americans destroy, we build,” he said.