Muqtada al-Sadr (file photo)
27 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq today confirmed that U.S. forces have suspended offensive operations against militiamen loyal to Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the Iraqi holy city of Al-Najaf.
Dan Senor, spokesman for the U.S.-led administration, told a news conference the U.S. Army will gradually hand over responsibility for security to Iraqi police in the city.
The announcement came after Shi'a leaders in Al-Najaf struck a deal with al-Sadr to end the fighting.
But Senor said al-Sadr will have to fulfill the commitments he made to the Shi'a leaders.
"We are hopeful that Muqtada al-Sadr will live up to the commitments he made in this letter. If Muqtada al-Sadr does in fact live up to the commitments he made to the Shi'a house, we will play our part," Senor said. But Senor said the coalition has not altered its position "with regard to the need to dissolve and disarm al-Sadr's militia" or to have him arrested on murder charges.
Al-Sadr earlier today offered to withdraw his militiamen from Al-Najaf as part of a new offer to end his uprising. The news came amid reports that mainstream Shi'a leaders are putting heavy pressure on al-Sadr to resolve a crisis that has disrupted normal life in Shi'a shrine cities. Armed supporters were said to be ready to withdraw from the southern shrine city as part of the peace proposal.
A senior Iraqi official said that al-Sadr proposed withdrawing all of his fighters who are not natives of Al-Najaf from the city. Iraq national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i said that, in exchange, al-Sadr wanted U.S. troops to also pull back from the city.
Al-Rubay'i read out an English translation of al-Sadr's peace offer at a news conference in Baghdad today. The offer was contained in a letter addressed to Shi'a religious leaders in Al-Najaf: "Honorable brother members of the Shi'a house, the peace and the mercy and the blessing of God be upon you. To put an end to the tragic situation in noble Najaf, and to put an end to the violation of the sanctity of the sacred shrine of Imam Ali, and the rest of the noble sites, I announce my agreement to the following plan."
In addition to withdrawing armed fighters, al-Sadr offered to return any government buildings they now occupy to government use. He also agreed to open the way for police and other Iraqi security forces to return to their duties. And he agreed to open discussions with senior Shi'a religious leaders over the ultimate fate of al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army.
An aid to pre-eminent Shi'a Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani told Reuters that al-Sistani had persuaded al-Sadr to make peace. Hamad al-Khafaf said al-Sistani did so because he feared U.S. forces might soon storm Al-Najaf.
U.S. officials rejected mutual withdrawal conditions offered by al-Sadr earlier in May.
U.S. forces spokesman Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said American troops killed a "very large number" of al-Sadr's fighters overnight. He put the number killed at "less than 40" in Al-Najaf and "less than 100" in Baghdad.
The cleric has previously demanded that the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) drop murder charges against him, something the CPA has said it will not do. Al-Sadr's militiamen have fought sporadically with coalition forces in parts of southern Iraq and areas of Baghdad since the CPA announced in April that it would arrest al-Sadr in connection with the slaying of a rival Western-leaning Shi'a cleric in Al-Najaf in 2003.
A top representative in Baghdad for al-Sadr told RFE/RL yesterday that the cleric was negotiating only with Shi'a community leaders and not directly with U.S. officials.
Asad Turki Swari, the spokesman for al-Sadr in Baghdad's western Al-Karkh district, said U.S. officials have not put forward any peace offers of their own. He also accused U.S. forces of deliberately damaging one of the holiest Shi'a shrines, the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, in fighting earlier this week.
"The negotiation was and is still between Shi'a, and I can't imagine [negotiating with] the Americans because they negotiate with arrogance," Swari said. "They haven't submitted any plan or ideas, and their last attack was on our holy Imam [Imam Ali Shrine in Al-Najaf]. The Americans used weapons which the Mahdi Army uses, so that the attack would be interpreted as an attack by the Mahdi Army and so that there would be conflicts between Shi'a."
American commanders have said their forces did not fire a mortar round that slightly damaged the mosque complex two days ago. U.S. officials charge al-Sadr's supporters with using holy places to store weapons and seek shelter.
Sawri said al-Sadr wants U.S. troops out of Al-Najaf and for Washington to allow what he called "free and fair" elections in Iraq.
"The demand of Muqtada [al-Sadr] is clear, that [the Americans] leave the city, release prisoners, especially the students of Al-Hawza [the Shi'a religious establishment], stop attacking our holy places and stop degrading Muslims, and have free and honest elections with the supervision of the Islamic organization [Organization of the Islamic Conference] and the Arab League, and to ensure freedom of speech and not confront people with bullets, as Saddam [Hussein] used to do," Sawri said.
Al-Sadr has been in conflict with the U.S.-led occupation authorities almost since U.S. troops entered Iraq in 2003. He has refused to participate in the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) and has repeatedly called for foreign forces to leave the country. His armed uprising has put him in increasing conflict with many mainstream Shi'a religious leaders, who say it endangers Shi'a shrines and is motivated by personal ambition.
Al-Sadr, a mid-level cleric in his early 30s, is the son of a preeminent ayatollah who was killed by presumed agents of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 1999. Since inheriting control of his father's religious foundation -- one of the largest in Iraq -- al-Sadr has sought to become a political force at the expense of other, much more senior Shi'a religious leaders.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had previously called for both U.S. forces and al-Sadr militants to stay out of Al-Najaf and Karbala. Residents of both shrine cities are reported to increasingly resent the Imam Al-Mahdi Army's presence, as fighting disrupts normal economic life. Last week, al-Sistani called on residents of the two holy cities to protest against the presence of armed forces in the towns.
Local pressure is reported to have already calmed the situation in Karbala, which was the scene of heavy fighting earlier this month. Several hundred residents took to the streets on 21 May with banners proclaiming "Karbala is a city of peace."
The marchers in Karbala were protected by members of the militia of the best-organized Shi'a political party, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). That party -- whose militia is considered to be as strong as al-Sadr's -- participates in the Governing Council and views cooperation with the coalition as the best way to assure a strong Shi'a representation in Iraq's future governments. In past decades, the community was repressed by regimes based in Iraq's Sunni minority community.
A resident of Karbala told RFE/RL yesterday that there has been no renewed fighting in that city for several days and that life there is returning to normal.
Ahmad Wahid Abid al-Hussein said by telephone from Karbala that Iraqi police are back on the streets and schools have reopened for children to take their annual final exams: "At the moment, Karbala is quiet and stable and everything has gone back to normal. The police are back on the streets, official government offices are back to normal, schools, too, are back to normal. [U.S. troops] went back to their previous positions [outside the town] and, concerning the Mahdi army, they went back to their places, or maybe they went somewhere else, but they are not in Karbala. Karbala is completely stable, and we have normal electricity and the shops are open."
(RFE/RL freelancer Sami Alkhoja contributed to this report.)