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.
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.
Barely 10 minutes later, a series of mortar shells landed inside the nearby central mosque in the adjacent city of Kufa, controlled by the Mahdi Army. Ambulances carried about 15 wounded civilians to the Al Hakeem Hospital in Najaf. The hospital staff, already sapped by three weeks of relentless fighting, say there have been 26 recorded civilian deaths in the past 24 hours.
By noon, the city returned to a kind of siege. Demonstrators - all unarmed, according to journalists present on the scene - marched toward the US bases at the edge of Najaf, and were cut down by gunfire.
"Suddenly armed men joined our group and fired at the police," witness Hazim Kareem told Reuters at Najaf's hospital. "The police started firing everywhere."
For the remainder of the afternoon, Najaf police patrolled the streets looking for cars and buses with Baghdad license plates. With peace so close at hand, the city was in lockdown once more.
Now, whatever the final outcome for Mr. Sadr's encircled forces at the shrine, there are likely to be profound political consequences.
If the Iraqi government should give the go-ahead for a final attack - ignoring the 11th hour peace moves of Sistani - public opinion may turn against the government, and toward the waiting arms of radical movements like Sadr's Mahdi Army.
Whatever happens here, most experts agree that the supreme loser will be Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
"Let's give Allawi some benefit of the doubt here, and say that this attack wasn't his choice," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.
"Probably Allawi has already lost. It wasn't his decision to launch an extended siege, that tugged on the heartstrings of [Shiites], many of whom don't like Sadr, but don't like the siege either and don't like the fact that the American military is at the head of the fight."
If anyone is strengthened, Mr. Dodge says, it is likely to be Sadr or Sistani. "If Sistani pulls this off in the end, then his moral and political weight is increased. If Sadr escapes Najaf, either to Kufa or to Sadr City, his political and military position is bolstered because he fought the Americans. For Allawi, it's more problematic. He has no army, a very doubtful police force, no [loyal following], no power at all. That's not his fault, that's just the hand he was dealt when he became prime minister."
Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, is more blunt. "The problem here is that getting Moqtada al-Sadr out of Najaf doesn't solve anything." If he emerges alive with Sistani, "Sadr could be seen as a defender of the Shiite movement."
If a peace initiative appears to be deliberately stalled, however, there could be political reverberations across the Shiite south.
In Baghdad Wednesday afternoon, Shiites from the Sadr City and Kadhimiya neighborhoods prepared to drive to Najaf to greet Sistani, and clerics from several Shiite parties piled into cars to take part in the negotiations.
"We left Baghdad this morning, coming to make a peaceful demonstration to help Sistani solve the problem between the Americans and Moqtada al-Sadr," said a middle-aged man who called himself Abu Muslim, aboard a bus full of protesters that made it to Najaf. "We want the Americans to go out of Najaf, and the Mahdi Army also."
Moments later, police arrived, firing their weapons into the air and arrested the Abu Muslim and some 50 other demonstrators, turning their bus around and taking it to the police station. Journalists nearby were detained, their cameras examined for pictures of the arrests, and later released.
• Material from wire service reports was used in this article.