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Clashes Slow as Cleric's Grip on Mosque Seems to Slip

24 August 2004


AJAF, Iraq, Aug. 20 - Moktada al-Sadr, the rebel Shiite cleric, still seemed to retain control of the shrine of Imam Ali here late on Friday, though there were signs his grip might be weakening as the number of fighters loyal to him in the mosque dwindled to a few hundred.

Earlier in the day, forces loyal to Mr. Sadr said he had promised to "turn over the keys" of the sacred mosque to aides to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, building optimism about an imminent end to the two-week standoff between Mr. Sadr's guerrillas, American forces and the interim Iraqi government.

Ayad Allawi, the interim Iraqi prime minister, who on Thursday issued a "final call" to Mr. Sadr to quit the mosque, quickly hailed the cleric's offer to cede control of the shrine and again called on him to disband his militia and form a political party. Yet, a few hours later, at about 10:30 p.m., Mr. Sadr broadcast a new statement from the shrine's loudspeakers calling on his followers to gather and fight American forces.

But skirmishes between American forces and Mr. Sadr's guerrillas slowed Friday after exploding Thursday night, and American troops said they would refrain from offensive operations for the immediate future. For their part, Mr. Sadr's fighters reportedly said they would stop carrying weapons inside the shrine, where hundreds of them have been holed up since the fighting began two weeks ago.

During the day, the fighters who make up Mr. Sadr's militia, called the Mahdi Army, slowly trickled out of the shrine, as American tanks and Humvees exchanged fire with enemy snipers less than half a mile from the entrance. "Many people have left," said a man who identified himself as Abu Mustafa, a Mahdi Army fighter. "The shrine is emptying."

The Iraqi Interior Ministry said Friday evening that Iraqi security forces controlled the shrine, a claim disputed both by witnesses and the Iraqi police.

In Washington, a senior administration official monitoring the situation in Najaf said Friday that Mr. Sadr's fighters had vacated the shrine. "We believe the Imam Ali mosque is now free of his fighters," the official said, "but the Iraqi police are not in there. We're getting a variety of reports from people on the ground."

Dr. Allawi said he was heartened by the day's developments. "There has been an improvement in the security situation in Iraq and especially in holy Najaf," he said in a statement. "Let this be the start of a new era and a free Iraq without armed militias." Late on Friday night, CNN reported that an Iraqi government delegation was scheduled to travel to Najaf to negotiate with Mr. Sadr. The report could not be immediately confirmed.

There were promising developments as well in the case of Micah Garen, the American freelance journalist seized Wednesday. Mr. Garen appeared in a video on Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite network, saying he was being well treated and calling on the American military to stop the fighting in Najaf. On Thursday, a top aide to Mr. Sadr had urged Mr. Garen's captors to let him go.

All sides have treaded carefully over the treacherous political ground surrounding the shrine. They know they all have much to lose, should the current stalemate descend into all-out war.

Mr. Sadr's guerrillas are no match for American forces and face destruction in a pitched battle. But any attack on the inner ring of Najaf's Old City, which surrounds the shrine, would inflame Shiite Muslims worldwide. And severe damage to the shrine, whether caused by American troops or Mr. Sadr's guerrillas, could provoke rebellion among Iraq's Shiites, who are a majority of the population.

So both the government and Mr. Sadr have alternated hawkish statements and peace overtures, playing a tricky game of bluffs and counter-bluffs as each tries to ascertain the other's breaking point. Meanwhile, American commanders here continue to plan for an attack on the Old City, while acknowledging they were not sure they would ever be told to carry out the assault.

The tightrope that the two sides are walking was clearly visible in the cemetery on Thursday and Friday. Late on Thursday night, American soldiers in tanks and armored vehicles pushed to its southern edge, just a few hundred yards from the mosque, where they fired tanks and heavy machine guns at buildings in the Old City.

But on Friday morning, American commanders at the Marine base on the northern edge of Najaf pulled their front line more than a mile back, supposedly to respect the fact that Friday is the Muslim holy day. The commanders then planned a mission for Friday night even more aggressive than the one they had Thursday, before abruptly scuttling it after it had already begun. That left the informal cease-fire in place and soldiers in the cemetery wondering whether they should plan for a night of violence or peace.

The quiet in the mosque on Friday was broken by occasional gunfire outside. Small groups of barefoot men lounged on carpets spread in the shade on the shrine's polished white marble floor. They appeared to be fewer than 300, far less than the 1,000 said to be in the shrine at the start of the fighting.

Small rooms behind wooden doors also contained men, though their numbers were not known. One such room contained a makeshift hospital where injured Mahdi militiamen were treated. On Friday, doctors had five injured men including one civilian - a teenage boy who had been selling ice cream when he was struck in the chest by a sniper's bullet.

"The danger is less," said a doctor dressed in blue hospital scrubs who identified himself as Dr. Amil. Still, large explosions could be heard in the city just after 1:30 a.m. Saturday morning.

On Friday, one of Mr. Sadr's spokesmen scurried in and out of the shrine bearing messages from Mr. Sadr, who was in an undisclosed location that many said was thought to be outside the Old City. The aide, Sheik Ahmed al-Sheibani, announced that Mr. Sadr had agreed to turn over control of the shrine to Ayatollah Sistani. He said Mr. Sadr's group had contacted Ayatollah Sistani, who is in London recovering from heart surgery. Ayatollah Sistani agreed to accept the keys, The Associated Press reported from London on Friday, as long as Mr. Sadr's militiamen left altogether. "If the people inside the holy shrine leave it altogether, lock the doors and place the key in an envelope and take it to Sistani's office in Najaf, then he has told his people there to receive the key," a spokesman for Mr. Sistani said.

Mr. Sheibani, eager to portray the apparent plans for withdrawal to Mr. Sadr's advantage, cast the proposed handover as a victory of Shiites over the government. "The agreement of Sistani is a hit to the government," he said Friday. "We cannot hand over this holy shrine to the government because the government is under the authority of occupation.''

The government for its part also claimed victory when a spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry, Sabah Kadhim, made a surprise announcement earlier Friday that the Iraqi police had taken the shrine without firing a shot. But as late as 7 p.m. on Friday night, Mr. Sadr's militia still controlled its main entrance.

Though the shrine itself was relatively quiet, streets immediately to the south and east crackled with gunfire in a zone where Mahdi snipers fought with Americans. Passers-by waved white fabric and held their hands in the air while walking close to walls to avoid sniper fire.

Many of the Mahdi militia members in the shrine on Friday said they were not from Najaf. Some had come from Baghdad, others from Shiite towns farther south. They said they were drawn to calls by Mr. Sadr to defend Islam against an invading power. Imad Hussein said he left his rug business and three young children at home in Baghdad to join Mr. Sadr's followers here. "I'm defending our country, our holy places," he said. "What is making America so crazy is that we are fighting for our religion."

In Friday Prayer in the neighboring town of Kufa, a small aid operation for Najaf was taking place. Men were loading plastic bags of drinking water into wheelbarrows, and large sacks of flour were stacked high against the mosque's walls.

Another of Mr. Sadr's aides, Sheik Jabbar al-Hafaji, delivered the prayer on Friday. Mr. Hafaji said Mr. Sadr had asked Shiite elders to take over the shrine. "Even if it's not under the Mahdi Army, that's best for the Shiite leadership," he said. Mr. Sadr, he said, was on his way to martyrdom as American troops advanced in Najaf.

A woman with a 7-month-old baby knelt on a prayer rug. She said her 20-year-old son, Ali, was killed in April during Mr. Sadr's first uprising against the Americans. "I'm happy," she said, her face expressionless. "This is for religion."

Steven R. Weisman contributed reporting from Washingtonfor this article.