Sadr offers to hand over Najaf shrine

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The Independent Online

Besieged followers of Muqtada Sadr today said they would hand control of the revered Imam Ali Shrine to top Shiite religious authorities in an attempt to end a two-week-old uprising in the holy city of Najaf.

Besieged followers of Muqtada Sadr today said they would hand control of the revered Imam Ali Shrine to top Shiite religious authorities in an attempt to end a two-week-old uprising in the holy city of Najaf.

Sadr's aide Ahmed al-Shaibany said the rebel cleric was on his way to the office of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, to offer to present officials there with keys to the shrine.

If they agree - which is not a certainty - the shrine could be handed over later today, he said.

"We don't want to appease the government ... we want to appease the Iraqi people," he said.

Sistani is at present undergoing medical treatment in London.

The city appeared far more quiet today than it has in weeks. US tanks were on the streets, but residents reported seeing some of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia pulling out of the Old City.

The Imam Ali Shrine compound, which had been filled with hundreds of chanting and bellicose gunmen in recent days, appeared far calmer. Arab TV footage revealed far fewer people inside and no armed men. One sandbagged gun position outside the shrine was abandoned.

Explosions and gun battles had raged in Najaf all day yesterday, intensifying hours after American forces bombed militant positions and Iraq's prime minister made a "final call" for the cleric's militia to surrender.

Marine Captain Carrie Batson said US warplanes had been "clearing Muqtada militia positions" east of the revered Imam Ali Shrine overnight, when at least 30 explosions shook the Old City. Before dawn, US forces also fired precision-guided bombs at militiamen who were firing mortars at American troops in the neighbouring cemetery and Old City, Batson said.

Sadr has said in recent days he wanted to make sure the shrine was in the custody of religious authorities, though it was unclear if the government would agree to that.

The violence in the holy city between the insurgents and a combined US-Iraqi force has angered many in Iraq's Shiite majority and proven a major challenge to Allawi's fledgling interim government as it tries to build credibility.

In Fallujah, US warplanes launched two air strikes today on the troubled Iraqi city, considered a hotbed of Sunni Muslim insurgents. Two people were killed and six injured in the first attack, said a hospital doctor.

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