Friday, August 27, 2004

Militants Leave Shrine as Cease-Fire Deal Appears to Hold

Militants Leave Shrine as Cease-Fire Deal Appears to Hold
NAJAF, Iraq, Aug. 27 — An uneasy peace settled over this city today as guerrillas loyal to the insurgent cleric Moktada al-Sadr streamed out of the Imam Ali Shrine before a cordon of American troops, ceding control of the Shiite holy site to the mainstream religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and appearing to end a bloody three-week standoff.

With thousands of civilians pouring into the shrine from all over Iraq, some who were weeping and kissing the walls of the damaged temple, the insurgents who had commandeered the holy site for nearly a month joined the departing pilgrims and headed out through its vaulting gates.

"In the name of Allah, my brothers in the Mahdi Army, I beg you, if civilians are in the shrine, leave with them, and leave your guns behind," intoned a voice from the shrines loudspeaker, reading a message from Mr. Sadr. "This is an order that you must obey."

With that, the fighters, many of them hollow-eyed and appearing strained after days under fire, walked into the streets and left the area, moving along what appeared to be an agreed-upon exit route that led out of the city. Others simply hung about, boasting of what they told themselves was an epic stand against the American Army.

As the Mahdi Army fighters did not surrender themselves, neither did they give up their guns. Instead, they took the assault rifles and rocket launchers with which they had commandeered the shrine and loaded them onto donkey carts, covering them with blankets and grain sacks and television sets and sending them away.

Hours later, Mahdi Army fighters, some still dressed in their signature black uniforms, could be seen stashing rocket launchers in crates and pushing them into roadside shops.

As the Mahdi fighters streamed out of the city, the American soldiers who had fought their way to within 75 yards of the shrine in some of the war's most ferocious fighting kept their distance, neither shooting the Mahdi fighters nor trying to take them into custody. American commanders said they were under orders to arrest no one, least of all Mahdi Army insurgents.

Later in the day, obviously tipped off about a cache of guns, a platoon of American soldiers rumbled up Rasool Street to the gates of the shrine and began searching sidewalks and cars.

Aides to Ayatollah Sistani, who brokered the peace agreement upon returning to the city on Thursday, moved into the shrine early today and told Mr. Sadr's men that they were now in charge.

"We are taking over the shrine," one of Ayatollah Sistani's senior clerics said. "We will not be making another comment."

By early evening, aides to Ayatollah Sistani were fully in control of the shrine itself. Iraqi police officers, backed by American soldiers and armor, converged on the area around the shrine, with the Americans moving to within 75 yards and then dropping back.

The reassertion of Iraqi government control, symbolized by the entry of the police, was one of the key demands made by Ayatollah Sistani of Mr. Sadr.
con·cept: Militants Leave Shrine as Cease-Fire Deal Appears to Hold