Sistani brokers Najaf peace

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani was backed by Baghdad and the US military in his efforts to negotiate an end to 22 days of fighting against forces loyal to Moqtada Sadr.

A fragile ceasefire is now being observed in the holy city, just hours after 74 people were killed in a mortar attack and shooting in nearby Kufa.

“Sayed (honorific) Moqtada Sadr has agreed to Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s conditions,” said Sistani spokesman Hamid Khaffaf.

State Minister Kassem Daoud said the Baghdad government had accepted the initiative “presented to us by his eminence Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani”.

The elderly ayatollah, treated to a euphoric welcome after returning from medical treatment in London on Wednesday, said he wants all armed groups to disarm and leave Najaf and Kufa, along with all foreign troops.

In his five-point plan, Iraqi police would also resume responsibility for security and law and order in the two cities and the interim government would compensate those who have suffered in the weeks of heavy fighting.

Najaf Governor Adnan al-Zorfi told Al-Arabiya television that Sadr’s Mehdi Army were expected to evacuate their Imam Ali shrine stronghold at 0600 GMT on Friday, where they have been holed up for four months.

Meanwhile, a large crowd took advantage of the ceasefire in Najaf to force their way into the Imam Ali mausoleum, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam.

“This is democracy, this is the new Iraq, this is the greatest defeat we could have inflicted on the Americans. It’s the most beautiful day in my life,” said Akir Hassan, 63, hurrying inside to pray.

In Baghdad, a senior government official said Allawi would make a formal response in due course.

“But providing that it is in keeping with our aims, I think the response will be favourable,” he said.

Announcing the ceasefire earlier, Mr Allawi said it was a “last call for peace”, vowing a “safe passage” for Sadr if he disarmed and quit the shrine.

Before the ceasefire, US tanks and helicopters pounded militia posts, pinning them back to the immediate area of the Imam Ali shrine.

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