Allawi lets US forces stay in Najaf until Iraqis take control

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The Independent Online

United States forces will remain in Najaf until the interim Iraqi Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, judges that control of the city can safely be handed over in its entirety to the country's own police and security forces, senior American officials said yesterday.

While the formula promoted by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for ending three bloody weeks of fighting in Najaf provides for the withdrawal of foreign forces, US Marines and cavalry will keep their tanks, armoured vehicles and troops in defensive positions until Iraqi security forces are fully ready to take over.

As Najaf limped back to life in the wake of the withdrawal from its ancient centre by armed insurgents loyal to the militant Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a senior US military source said he thought it would be a matter of "days rather than weeks" but insisted that the formula did not state how fast US forces would have to be withdrawn.

Iraqi security forces have already significantly tightened their control of the city, entering the Imam Ali mosque compound for the first time since the fighting began. In neighbouring Kufa, which until Thursday night was fully in the control of the Mehdi Army, the insurgent checkpoints and patrols had yesterday been replaced by a heavy presence of the Iraqi Intervention force and national guardsmen. The Mehdi militia has ended an occupation of the main mosque which began last spring.

Stung by media coverage suggesting that the ultimatum from the Ayatollah, Shia Iraq's most venerated cleric, to Sadr to end his occupation of the holy sites of the two cities had enhanced his authority at the expense of Mr Allawi's, US officials yesterday insisted that their had been a "congruence" between Ayatollah Sistani's views of the conflict and that of the interim government. The officials said the Ayatollah had always wanted the Allwai government to act to provide security, including for his own moderate clerics hemmed in by the Sadr presence in Najaf's old city.

On widespread speculation that the Ayatollah's formula had been devised in consultation with US and British officials while he was in London for medical treatment during the three week battle for control of Najaf, a senior US diplomatic source insisted there had been "surprisingly little" contact between the cleric and the US. The British embassy in Baghdad said the Foreign Office's only role had been to arrange a visa for the Ayatollah.

While acknowledging Sadr's continued importance as a political player and his appeal to poor, disaffected Shia youth - as well as the fact that Thursday night's agreement only applies to Najaf and Kufa - US officials suggested that his standing among his own most militant supporters could have been diminished by having to issue a written command to his gunmen to withdraw. "You have to obey orders to avoid great damage to me and to you," said the order circulated at Najaf's Imam Ali mosque on Friday.

An American official said: "He now has to choose whether to buy into the political process or to try to work against the process."

On Friday, Mehdi Army gunmen tried to put a brave face on the order from Sadr to leave the holy sites, reluctant to rule out resuming the conflict at some future date. In the alleyway leading to the shrine from Medan Square - just before a mercifully short-lived ceasefire-breaking exchange of fire between police and insurgents - one armed militant, Radh Hatif, 31, said of the agreement: "If it works, great. If it doesn't, we are ready to fight again and sacrifice ourselves for Allah. If the Americans want to escalate it, we are ready." In an overt, and rare, criticism of Ayatollah Sistani, Mr Hatif added: "He will be trusted as the leader if he acts alone without the Americans and the Allawi government behind him. Otherwise he is like a robot." US officials acknowledged that they had no details on the fate of weapons rounded up by Sadr officials on Friday.

Pressed on another clause in the Ayatollah's formula, compensation for the devastation wrought in Najaf by the fighting, US officials said a "needs assessment" would be conducted in the next few weeks. Smashed frontages, twisted joists, slabs of fallen concrete along the streets strewn with mortars, bullets, empty shells and charred RPG launchers testified to the three weeks of intense fighting which had kept Najaf's non-combatant residents from the bleak sight of their own ravaged city centre.

In Medina Street, a large building, one of several destroyed by US Marines and cavalrymen, had been reduced in its entirety to roofless rubble by an aerial bomb, designed to harry the insurgents from their otherwise impenetrable redoubts deep in the old city; only the supporting pillars still stood by some perverse miracle of engineering.The burned-out al-Amarah Hotel, one of dozens of catering in peacetime for Iranian and other pilgrims to the holy shrine, was riddled with the high-calibre rounds and tank shells. Ambulances crunched slowly over the rubble and spent ordinance to reach the dead bodies.

Exchanges of prisoners are under way after Sadr militants secured the release of a top aide to the cleric, Ali Smeissm, on Friday - in exchange for the kidnapped relative of the Defence Minister, according to Ahmed al-Shabani, another Sadr aide.

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