Sistani aide: Najaf peace deal reached
They came by the thousands, these unarmed Shiite demonstrators, answering the call of their spiritual leader to witness a peace he would try to bring to Najaf, his besieged city.Skip to next paragraph
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Initially, the return of supreme Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani looked like it might herald a return to fighting. But by Thursday evening, rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr agreed to a peace deal presented by Ayatollah Sistani to end three weeks of fighting in Najaf, according to a top aide to Sistani.
The five-point peace plan called for:
- Najaf and Kufa be declared weapons-free cities
- All foreign forces withdraw from Najaf
- Iraqi local police take charge of security
- The government to compensate those whose businesses and homes were damaged in the fighting
- A census to be taken to prepare for elections expected in the country by January.
"Mr. Moqtada 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.
The deal came after a violent day that saw dozens of civilians killed in Kufa and Najaf. By Thursday afternoon, Sistani called for a pause, telling protesters to stay home and urging all forces to withdraw. US and Iraqi troops agreed to suspend military operations for 24 hours.
Before the cleric's convoy arrived from Basra Thursday, a mortar barrage from unknown attackers killed or wounded dozens of supporters of Sistani and Mr. Sadr at a mosque in nearby Kufa, where they were waiting to march into Najaf.
Soon after, another group of Najaf-bound marchers were caught in deadly crossfire that erupted between Mr. Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters and forces stationed at an Iraqi National Guard base.
Many Shiites - who make up some 60 percent of Iraq's population - saw the intervention of Sistani as a last chance to resolve the conflict without further damage or bloodshed.
In Najaf, fighting and tensions mounted Wednesday evening ahead of Sistani's return. The nervous police department raided the Najaf Sea Hotel, where most of the foreign and Arab press corps is staying.
At 9 p.m., dozens of armed policeman kicked down doors and fired weapons indoors, before leading reporters away in pickup trucks to the police station.
There, police chief Ghalib al-Jezairi criticized journalists for reporting on Sistani's peace initiative. Denying that Sistani had called for demonstrators to converge on Najaf, Mr. Al-Jezaari later apologized for the rough treatment his men had given journalists.
"Let's not forget they are under huge stress because of the night attacks on the police and the American raids on the Old City of Najaf. I hope you will excuse us for our behavior."
On Thursday morning, the city returned to a kind of normalcy once more. Cars plied the roads, and shops reopened in all but the embattled Old City section, where snipers and US troops kept Sadr's militia pinned down.
Then at 10 a.m., fighting within the Old City intensified.
Shells and heavy machine-gun fire from Bradley fighting vehicles could be heard a half-mile away from the shrine, and smoke filled the skies. The American cordon appeared to be growing tighter, now within a few hundred yards on all sides.
Those who have seen the Mahdi Army forces inside the Old City say they appear increasingly exhausted, and their numbers have dwindled.