(AP) BAGHDAD, Iraq – Militiamen loyal to rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Friday removed weapons from the revered Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf in a step aimed at ending the 2-week-old uprising centered on the holy site.
Iraq’s highest Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, agreed to take control of the shrine, which al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia turned into a stronghold and refuge during their fight with U.S. forces.
One al-Sadr aide said the keys to the shrine could be handed over later Friday to religious authorities under al-Sistani, though details were still being worked out.
Sporadic gunfire and occasional explosions were heard in the city Friday evening, but far less than previous nights.
By nightfall, al-Sadr’s fighters remained in control of the shrine, but they were no longer bringing their weapons inside the walled compound of the holy site, according to an Associated Press reporter inside.
Many armed militiamen were still circulating in the Old City district outside the shrine, but as they entered the compound they left their guns with comrades outside, then reclaimed them as they exited.
No weapons were visible inside the shrine, the AP reporter said. It was not known whether any weapons were hidden inside, though militant leaders denied they had hidden any.
The surprise moves to resolve the crisis came a day after Iraq’s interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, threatened to storm the shrine, a move certain to cause bloodshed and infuriate Shiites across Iraq. On Thursday and overnight, U.S. warplanes bombed militia positions in Najaf in fighting that killed 77 people and wounded 70 others.
But with Najaf on Friday at its quietest in weeks, Allawi backed off his threats, saying a peaceful resolution was possible.
“We are not going to attack the mosque, we are not going to attack Muqtada al-Sadr and the mosque, evidently we are not going to do this,” Allawi told BBC radio Friday. “The olive branch is still extended, he can take advantage of the olive branch.”
Al-Sadr has so far rejected the other main government demand — that he disband his Mahdi Army. But if he pulls out of the shrine, it would likely mean the end of the fighting that erupted on Aug. 5.
The sanctity of the area made uprooting al-Sadr’s fighters a daunting task. U.S. forces had ruled out an American assault on the site and had faced tough fighting in a vast cemetery nearby from which militiamen fired on American and Iraqi troops.
Handing over the shrine to al-Sistani’s religious authorities appeared to be a face-saving way to emerge from the standoff for al-Sadr, who opposes the U.S. presence in Iraq and often sharply criticizes the pro-U.S. interim government.
“We don’t want to appease the government. … We want to appease the Iraqi people,” an aide to al-Sadr, Ahmed al-Shaibany, said earlier Friday as he headed to al-Sistani’s office in the city to discuss handing over the keys.
An aide to al-Sistani, who has been undergoing medical treatment in London, said al-Sistani agreed but that details of a transfer still needed to be worked out.
“If they want to hand over the keys to the Shiite religious leadership, then the religious leadership will welcome this in order to defuse the crisis,” Sheik Hamed Khafaf said.
In a sermon read on his behalf in the nearby Kufa Mosque, al-Sadr said he wanted the religious authorities to take control of the Old City from his Mahdi Army, though he also called on all Muslims to rise up if the shrine is attacked.
“I call on the Arab and Islamic people: If you see the dome of the holy Imam Ali Shrine shelled, don’t be lax in resisting the occupier in your countries,” he said. It was unclear if al-Sadr was calling for worldwide attacks on U.S. forces — which he often refers to as Iraq’s occupier.
The violence in Najaf between the insurgents and a combined U.S.-Iraqi force has angered many in Iraq’s Shiite majority and proven a major challenge to Allawi’s fledgling interim government as it tries to build credibility and prove it is not a U.S. puppet.
Earlier Friday, U.S. tanks were on the streets late Friday morning, but residents reported seeing some of the Mahdi Army militia pulling out of the Old City.
Explosions and gunbattles raged in Najaf all day Thursday. During the night, warplanes were “clearing Muqtada militia positions” east of the shrine, U.S. Marine Capt. Carrie Batson said. At least 30 explosions shook the Old City. Before dawn Friday, U.S. forces also bombed militiamen who were firing mortars at U.S. troops, Batson said.
Earlier Thursday, militants bombarded a Najaf police station with mortar rounds, killing seven police and injuring 35 others. Another round hit near the same station Friday, but inflicted no casualties.
In Baghdad, troops from the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division pulled out of the Sadr City slum, scene of fierce fighting between U.S. forces and supporters of the rebel cleric the day before, when five fighters and five civilians were killed.
In Fallujah, west of the capital, U.S. warplanes launched two airstrikes Friday on the troubled Iraqi city, considered a hotbed of Sunni Muslim insurgents. Two people were killed and six injured in the first attack just after midnight, said Dia’a al-Jumeili, a doctor at Fallujah’s main hospital.
A second missile hit an industrial area Friday morning. It exploded in an open field, spraying shrapnel that wounded three people.
U.S. forces have routinely bombed targets in the city it says are insurgent safehouses or strongholds.
Elsewhere in Iraq, militants attacked oil facilities in the north and south and fired mortars at U.S. Embassy offices in the capital, injuring one American.
An aide to al-Sadr said kidnappers have promised to release a U.S. journalist abducted in the southern city of Nasiriyah on Aug. 13.
The kidnappers, calling themselves the Martyrs Brigade, threatened a day earlier to kill New York journalist Micah Garen within 48 hours. But al-Sadr aide Sheik Aws al-Khafaji said he spoke with the militants, who told him they would release Garen later Friday.
Garen appeared in a video aired on Al-Jazeera later Friday, saying that his captors were treating him well.
“I am an American journalist in Iraq and I’ve been asked to deliver a message,” he said. “I am in captivity and being treated well.”
Meanwhile, the military reported Friday that two U.S. Marines were killed in action in Iraq’s volatile Anbar province.
One Marine died Wednesday and the second on Thursday, it said. As of Thursday, 947 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the U.S.