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U.S.-led coalition to suspend offensive operations in Najaf

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The U.S.-led coalition agreed Thursday to suspend military operations in Najaf as part of a deal negotiated by Iraqi leaders with rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to end a bloody standoff in the heartland of Shiite Islam.

Al-Sadr emerges from the agreement virtually unscathed. He won't face immediate prosecution on murder charges and doesn't have to disarm or disband his Mahdi Army militia as occupation authorities previously demanded. Iraqi leaders said the deal even helps al-Sadr shed his outlaw image and position himself as a politician, albeit one with an impoverished, militant support base.

The U.S.-led coalition, however, still stands to gain if the agreement is successful. Settling the south, home to most of Iraq's Shiite majority, is a vital step toward U.S. plans to stabilize the nation before the June 30 handover of limited sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government. Residents in southern Shiite holy cities have grown increasingly frustrated with clashes between U.S. forces and militiamen near sacred shrines and among graves in an ancient cemetery.

Coalition spokesman Dan Senor called the agreement "a good first step," but added that questions remain on how to deal with the murder charge against al-Sadr and the future of his Mahdi Army militia. Senor said U.S. troops would keep their posts in Najaf until Iraqi security forces had assumed responsibility for law and order.

"Until that time, coalition forces will suspend offensive operations, but will continue to provide security by carrying out presence patrols," Senor told journalists in Baghdad. "Throughout the process, coalition forces will retain the inherent right to self-defense."

One council member in the group of negotiators, Salama al Khafaji, survived an ambush on her convoy as she traveled back to Baghdad from Najaf, said Hamid al Kifaey, a Governing Council spokesman, late Thursday night. There were conflicting reports about fatalities in her party and her son was reported missing.

Al Khafaji is one of three women on the U.S.-appointed Governing Council. She replaced another Shiite female member, Aquila al Hashimi, who was assassinated in September in Baghdad.

The agreement calls for American forces to return to their bases with the exception of a few units to guard police stations and government buildings. Al-Sadr also demanded a deferment on the murder charge against him in connection with the killing last year of a moderate cleric, and he promised "broad discussions" with Shiite leaders on his plans for the Mahdi Army.

In exchange, al-Sadr said in a handwritten letter sent to the Iraqi Governing Council, he would withdraw all militiamen not originally from Najaf, allowing Iraqi police to take over security. Al-Sadr also would evacuate government buildings seized during the uprising he began in early April, when U.S. forces charged him and cracked down on his militia.

The agreement was struck "to end the tragic situation in Najaf and the violation ... of the holy places," according to al-Sadr's statement. The letter was received just after a predawn raid Wednesday in which U.S. troops arrested Riyadh al Nouri, al-Sadr's brother-in-law who was believed to be the mastermind behind the Mahdi Army.

Some Iraqi and U.S. officials privately complained that al-Sadr is getting off easy after a year of anti-American activities. They likened the agreement to a similar move in Fallujah, where the coalition ended a month-long siege on Sunni Muslim insurgents by ceding most security matters to members of Saddam Hussein's former regime.

The results in Fallujah are mixed. While the cease-fire has held, insurgents continue to kidnap foreigners in the city and intimidate locals who challenge their authority. Reports emerged this week that the U.S.-approved Fallujah Brigade stood by as religious extremists publicly stripped and flogged liquor-store owners.

In Najaf on Thursday, most militiamen remained in place, toting guns and chanting their support for al-Sadr. During the standoff, U.S. forces have killed hundreds of militiamen while incurring a small number of casualties. In just one night of fighting this week, between 70 and 100 Mahdi Army fighters were killed around Najaf and in a heavily Shiite slum in Baghdad.

The clashes have been so one-sided that the U.S. military this week stopped giving regular death tolls. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the spokesman for U.S. military operations in Iraq, said Thursday that "it serves no purpose to talk about the numbers of young Iraqis that we've had to kill because they have been entranced and followed into the lure" of al-Sadr.

The truce comes just as fury over slight battle damage to the Imam Ali shrine, Shiite Islam's most sacred site, began to spread from the militant to the mainstream. Three Governing Council members, including onetime Bush administration favorite Ahmad Chalabi, arrived in Najaf to cement the deal and said they would stage a sit-in at a nearby mosque until fighting near the shrines stopped.

Sheik Ahmed Sheybani, a spokesman for al-Sadr in Najaf, said the presence of the Governing Council shows the "uprising is legitimate." He added that al-Sadr isn't seeking a political role as a result of the standoff; he simply wants to ensure Iraqi self-determination.

Sadoun al Dulame, the director of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, saw the deal differently. He said al-Sadr desperately wants to be viewed as a political figure and not as a criminal, so if the standoff ends and the indictment against al-Sadr is delayed or dismissed, "that's good for him."

"I think he got what's he looking for," Dulame said.

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(Knight Ridder correspondent Robert Moran and special correspondents Ahmed Mukhtar and Omar Jassem contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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