Prayers answered: Sistani's quest to Najaf raises hopes of peace deal

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The Independent Online

A possible end to three weeks of fighting in Najaf appeared in prospect last night after the first breakthrough in negotiations to end the armed occupation of the city's holy sites by insurgents loyal to the militant cleric Muqtada Sadr.

A possible end to three weeks of fighting in Najaf appeared in prospect last night after the first breakthrough in negotiations to end the armed occupation of the city's holy sites by insurgents loyal to the militant cleric Muqtada Sadr.

Despite 60 deaths in three separate outbreaks of violence, Iraq's most revered Shia cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, opened the way in talks with Sadr to a deal which could allow his militia to leave the Imam Ali shrine today without further bloodshed.

The earlier carnage ­ among the worst since fighting in the city began ­ had cast a shadow over the hopes vested in the peace formula promoted by the Ayatollah who had earlier arrived here from Basra under heavy guard. Although Ayatollah Sistani's aides said the deal would hold, it could still hit obstacles. Nor was it clear that the plan provided a long-term solution to the crisis which has flared twice this year.

Hamid al-Khaffaf, the head of Ayatollah Sistani's Beirut office, said in Najaf last night that a deal had been agreed with Sadr in which supporters arriving in the city would be allowed to spend the night in the shrine but that they and the insurgents would then leave it this morning. Earlier, about 35 demonstrators were shot dead by Iraqi police in Najaf and nearby Kufa after answering the Ayatollah's and Sadr's calls for supporters to march on the Shia holy city. Some witnesses in Najaf said police fired after armed men who had joined the marchers first shot at the police, while others said they were unaware of any firing from the crowd.

In a third incident, a mortar attack on Kufa's main mosque killed 25 people ­ mainly Sadr supporters preparing to walk the six miles to Najaf. US military sources suggested that it had been an insurgent attack that went wrong.

With the bloodshed casting doubt on the wisdom of the Ayatollah's call ­ heeded in massive numbers ­ for a demonstration in his support, Mr Khaffaf, who accompanied him from Basra yesterday, appealed to demonstrators, many proclaiming their backing for Sadr and the Ayatollah, to stay out of the centre of the city.

Yet hundreds of marchers reached the Imam Ali shrine despite the shooting of demonstrators ­ 65 of whom were injured, with hundreds more shedding their shoes and sandals and as they fled along the blood-splashed road marking the eastern edge of the old city.

US forces suspended their military offensive against the Mehdi Army for 24 hours from 3pm to maximise the chances of the peace talks achieving a settlement. The governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurufi, said the Ayatollah's four-part formula provided for Najaf and Kufa to be free of all "weapons and militia", for "foreign forces" to leave both cities, for Iraqi civilians to be compensated for their losses, and for voter records to be compiled for the general election in January.

At Najaf's al-Hakim Hospital, Mehdi Jaber, 40 who had travelled from the southern town of Samawa in the convoy behind Ayatollah's motorcade, said: "We reached the first checkpoint in Najaf and the Americans waved us through. At the next one, the Iraqi police let the Grand Ayatollah's car pass but then they ordered us to sit down. There were thousands of us. Then the police just started shooting. There were no Mehdi Army with us. We are not fighters. The police are madmen."

Haider Mehdi, 24, from Kut, said: "We did not like seeing Muqtada al-Sadr lay claim to leading the Shia people. So it was right that our real leader should come here. My brother ... was beside me when we reached Medina Street close to the old city. Suddenly we heard shots and realised it was the police firing at us. Abbas was hit four times in the back. He is in the operating theatre now. Today I am weeping for Iraq and for my brother. I have no idea if either of them will survive."

* The Iraqi kidnappers of Enzo Baldoni killed the Italian journalist because Italy refused to heed their 48-hour deadline to withdraw troops, al-Jazeera television said yesterday.

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