US retreats after failing to capture militia chief

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The Independent Online

United States forces agreed yesterday to withdraw from the Shia holy city of Najaf and end fighting with the militia of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. In a climbdown by the Americans, who had vowed to kill or capture Sadr, it now appears he will be allowed to remain free. His Army of Mehdi militia will also withdraw under the deal.

United States forces agreed yesterday to withdraw from the Shia holy city of Najaf and end fighting with the militia of the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. In a climbdown by the Americans, who had vowed to kill or capture Sadr, it now appears he will be allowed to remain free. His Army of Mehdi militia will also withdraw under the deal.

The Americans appeared to have given up their two main demands to end the fighting in Najaf: that Sadr surrender to them and that the Mehdi Army be disbanded immediately.

The American agreement to withdraw without capturing Sadr will be seen in Iraq as a second embarrassing capitulation in as many months, after US forces ended their April siege of the Sunni city of Fallujah without capturing those responsible for killing and mutilating the bodies of four American contractors - the original reason for the siege in which hundreds of Iraqi civilians are believed to have died.

Civilians have died in Najaf too, though not as many as in Fallujah. There has been widespread anger in the Shia world at the fighting in the holy city, especially after Iraq's most sacred Shia shrine, that of the Imam Ali, was damaged.

Members of the American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council who negotiated the deal with Sadr said yesterday it included an agreement to hold new talks over an arrest warrant under which he is wanted for the murder of another cleric last year, and on the future of the Army of Medhi. It remains to be seen whether the Americans, who have been demanding that Sadr surrender and face trial, will accept that. But the immediate threat to Sadr appears to have been lifted.

Dan Senor, the occupation authority's spokesman, said US forces would suspend their offensive in Najaf immediately and withdraw as soon as Iraqi security forces are able to take control of the city - an arrangement similar to Fallujah.

Mohammed al-Musawi, a Shia leader who was involved in extensive efforts to arrange a peaceful end to the fighting in Najaf, claimed the deal included an agreement that Sadr will not face any prosecution until after an elected Iraqi government takes office, which will not happen until next year. He also said that under the deal the Mehdi Army would become a political organisation.

Whether Sadr will get that much remains to be seen, but at any rate he appeared to have got the most out of yesterday's deal. It was a good result for him after scores of his militiamen were killed in the past few days.

The Americans may have agreed to the deal partly because of their need to calm the situation ahead of the planned handover of sovereignty to a new appointed Iraqi government on 30 June.

Sadr also appeared to have outmanoeuvred the Americans. Until yesterday, their answer to any criticism for fighting inside the holy city was that Sadr's militia had forced them into it by taking up positions there. But once Sadr had publicly offered to withdraw his militia if US forces did the same, a refusal would have made them appear the ones responsible for further violence inside Najaf.

Sadr launched his uprising in April after the US occupation authorities closed a newspaper he ran. The arrest warrant against him was only announced after his uprising began. The Americans appeared to be banking on a lack of widespread Shia support for Sadr. But they got bogged down in fighting with his militia, and every day it continued risked a more general Shia backlash.

Gunmen ambushed a convoy carrying a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, Salama al-Khafaji, as she was returning to Baghdad from mediation efforts in Najaf yesterday, an aide said. She survived, but three bodyguards were killed and her son was missing, according to a council member.

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