Militants leave shrine, accepting peace deal to end Najaf fighting
NAJAF, Iraq – Militants filed out of the Imam Ali Shrine, closed the doors behind them and turned over the keys to Iraq’s top Shiite cleric Friday, symbolizing their acceptance of a peace deal to end three weeks of devastating fighting in this holy city.
By Friday afternoon, dozens of Iraqi police and national guardsmen surrounded the shrine compound – many kissing its doors and weeping – as the government began to re-establish control over the Old City of Najaf. Some residents of the devastated neighborhood waved to them and yelled out, “Welcome. Welcome.”
U.S. forces still maintained their positions around the holy site, with tanks about 300 yards from the shrine and jet fighters flying overhead, but the fierce clashes of previous days had ended and most of the battered city had fallen calm.
“Today, the Najafis can sleep well,” Hamed al-Khafaf, an aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, told Al-Arabiya television.
Dozens of the militants loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr piled their Kalashnikov rifles in front of the firebrand cleric’s office here, but thousands of others were believed to be still armed, and some were seen pushing carts full of machine-guns and rocket launchers through a narrow alley.
The peace plan, presented by al-Sistani on Thursday and accepted by the government and al-Sadr, calls for the cities of Najaf and Kufa to be declared weapons-free, for all foreign forces to withdraw from Najaf and leave police in charge of security and for the government to compensate those harmed by the fighting.