BAGHDAD, Iraq – The rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government reached a deal late Thursday forged by Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric that would end the bloody standoff in Najaf by requiring that rebel forces disarm in exchange for a peaceful exit from the city.

The deal brokered by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – just hours after a dramatic return to his embattled home city – offers fragile hope to resolve a crisis that has gripped Iraq since Aug. 5, reduced much of central Najaf to ruins and challenged the authority of the nation’s fledgling government.

In the 24 hours before the deal was reached, gunfire and mortars killed at least 79 people in Najaf and Kufa and injured nearly 500, according to the Iraqi Health Ministry.

Though al-Sadr has abandoned cease-fire agreements at least twice before, this is the first time that the 73-year-old al-Sistani has brought his unrivaled influence to bear. More importantly, the deal offers al-Sadr broad latitude to carry on in public life, even after five months in which U.S. and Iraqi officials have portrayed him as a suspect in a year-old murder and variously sought to silence, arrest or kill him.

“Muqtada al-Sadr is free to go anywhere he likes,” said Iraqi State Minister Kasim Daoud, announcing the deal early Friday.

If it disarms, al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia would also “have the right to participate in the political process,” Daoud added.

The prospect of al-Sadr and his fighters reborn as a viable political movement could prove politically awkward for the Iraqi and U.S. officials who struggled to defeat the young radical cleric. The fact that the Iraqi government accepted such terms underscores the mounting toll the crisis has taken on its legitimacy and influence.

Earlier, al-Sistani’s aides said the other terms of the initiative call for Najaf and Kufa to be declared “weapons-free” cities, for all militias and foreign armies to withdraw, for police to take charge of security and for the government to compensate those who suffered damage during the fighting. Daoud said rebel forces would be expected to leave the sacred Imam Ali shrine by 10 a.m. Friday.

It was unclear early Friday whether U.S. forces would agree to withdraw. American officials had expressed willingness earlier in the day to follow al-Sistani’s lead and had agreed to a 24-hour cease-fire. Daoud said U.S. and other forces would withdraw as soon as interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi gave the order.

If it holds, the deal will confirm the power held by al-Sistani, who had returned to Najaf only hours earlier from weeks in London for heart surgery. Vowing to bring peace, al-Sistani had summoned his faithful from around the nation to march on Najaf on Thursday in a bid to end the fighting.

Thousands of Iraqis heeded the call, flooding highways to Najaf and Kufa with buses, cars and cheering pedestrians on their way to the besieged shrine in downtown Najaf. But the prospect of peace seemed all but dashed early Thursday when a mortar strike in Kufa killed at least 25 and wounded more than 60, the Interior Ministry said.

Both sides accused the other of launching the attack that struck a crowd of thousands huddled around a mosque. Survivors of the barrage pleaded for an explanation of who was behind the assault.

“God will punish them,” 28-year-old survivor Aziz Abd al-Amir, said of those responsible for the attack as he lay in a Najaf hospital, covered in blood from shrapnel wounds. “I only came here to save our holy shrine.”

Some demonstrators blamed the United States for the strike, but American military spokesmen said no U.S. forces were operating in the area at the time.

After the mortar strike, violence mounted. Demonstrators, some carrying placards bearing the image of the white-bearded al-Sistani, others with posters of the fresh-faced al-Sadr, surged from Kufa toward Najaf, but Iraqi police blocked their way, sparking gun battles that raged for much of the morning.

Abed Ilaa Hassan, a 46-year-old blacksmith from the Khadimiya section of Baghdad, had bloodstains in his car from having used it as an ambulance, and bullet holes riddled the hood.

“We were caught in a trap,” he said. “The police cars withdrew, and we came forward to pick up the wounded. We thought that they would let us go, and (when) we reached there and got the wounded and killed they fired on us again.”

Those clashes killed at least 10 and wounded more than 70, according to officials at al-Furat al-Wusta Hospital in Kufa.

The violence scarcely abated as al-Sistani arrived in his embattled home city midafternoon in a convoy of white SUVs. Television images showed fervent supporters swarming the vehicles, triggering additional clashes with police. The aging cleric later settled into a friend’s private residence for the afternoon as he prepared for talks with al-Sadr.

Mortar fire and bomb blasts that had racked the city much of the day eased, as U.S. and Iraqi forces opened a 24-hour cease-fire to facilitate the ayatollah’s return and provide a window for negotiation.

The respite provided little immediate relief at Najaf Hospital, struggling from weeks from unremitting bloodshed. The wounded men lying near the entrance to the hospital were there because there was no room for them inside, said hospital administrator Hussein al-Ghazali.

“Normally we don’t ask the people if they’re from Al Mahdi army or not, we just treat them,” al-Ghazali said wearily, in his office near the reception area. He said he had no idea how many additional casualties come to a makeshift medical unit the hospital established near the shrine because they had lost contact with them.

“Four days ago we lost communication with them. We used to be in contact by radio,” he said. “We don’t have another way to contact them.”

Meanwhile, Arab television station Al Jazeera said Friday that it received a video showing the killing of kidnapped Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, whom militants had threatened to execute if Italy did not withdraw troops from Iraq. Al Jazeera said the video was too graphic to broadcast but appeared to show Baldoni being slain.

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Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch supporter of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, condemned the reported slaying and repeated his statement of Tuesday that Italy’s 3,000 soldiers would not abandon the U.S.-led coalition and Iraq’s government, The Associated Press reported.

Separately, the U.S. military said that an American soldier in Baghdad was killed by a mortar attack the night before. As of Thursday, 966 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the Defense Department.



(Chicago Tribune news assistants Sinan Adhem and Yasser Yaassin contributed to this report from Kufa; Mohammed Fawzi and Dhiya al-Rasan contributed from Najaf.)



(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

AP-NY-08-26-04 2032EDT



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