NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) – Shi’ite rebels began handing in weapons and leaving a holy shrine on Friday in Iraq’s Najaf, where tens of thousands of pilgrims flocked to celebrate a peace deal reached overnight to end a bloody three-week uprising.
Fighters tossed AK-47 assault rifles and mortar launchers into wooden carts being pushed around near the sacred Imam Ali mosque after an order from renegade cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for his Mehdi Army militia to disarm and leave the shrine.
Mosque loudspeaker announcements in Sadr’s name gave the order in accordance with a peace deal brokered by Iraq’s most revered cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on Thursday.
Sistani made a dramatic return to Najaf on Thursday and persuaded Sadr to accept his peace initiative after a day of violence in which at least 74 Shi’ite pilgrims were killed.
Al Arabiya television said Sadr’s representatives had handed over the keys to the mosque, Iraq’s holiest Shi’ite shrine.
As part of the peace deal — which lifts some of the enormous pressure on interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi — U.S. marines will also pull out of Najaf after weeks of fierce daily ground and aerial attacks on Mehdi militia positions.
Sadr’s militia was to have left the mosque by 10 a.m. (0600 GMT), although as the deadline passed, some men were still there, witnesses said. However, no weapons could be seen inside.
At least four decaying bodies were brought out, they added.
But after bitter fighting with U.S. marines that killed hundreds and drove world oil prices to record highs, many Mehdi militants still breathed defiance.
“We will support whatever Ayatollah Sistani and Sayyed Moqtada have agreed. But we will still slit the throats of the Americans,” said one militiaman, Hussein Taama.
Another holding an AK-47 rifle, who said it was his personal weapon and would not be given up, added: “I will keep this warm and wait for Sayyed Moqtada’s order.”
The Najaf uprising has been a stark reminder to the interim government and the United States, which led the war to depose Saddam Hussein last year, of the huge hurdles ahead in Iraq.
President Bush acknowledged for the first time on Thursday he had miscalculated postwar conditions in Iraq, the New York Times reported. The paper quoted Bush as saying during a 30-minute interview that he made “a miscalculation of what the conditions would be” in post-war Iraq.
Tens of thousands of Shi’ites arrived on the outskirts of Najaf on Thursday, heeding a call by Sistani to march on the city. Just after dawn on Friday, they walked past dozens of pockmarked and destroyed buildings to the mosque.
Spent ammunition littered the city center, which a day earlier had been infested with snipers.
Many pilgrims were overcome with emotion at the gold-domed mosque. Some kissed the ornate walls inside the shrine and wept after they queued to get in.
“We pray today that Najaf will recover. The military operations have only brought destruction,” said Kassem Hameed, a 52-year-old oil worker from the southern city of Basra.
Some chanted pro-Sistani slogans and held up posters of the reclusive Iranian-born cleric. The occasional crackle of gunfire echoed nearby.
SADR TO REMAIN FREE
Under the peace deal, Najaf will be a weapons-free zone.
Iraq’s government also said Sadr would not face arrest. Earlier this year an Iraqi arrest warrant was issued for Sadr in connection with the murder of a rival cleric in Najaf last year.
The peace deal came after a day of bloodshed. The Health Ministry said at least 74 people were killed in mortar and shooting attacks in Najaf and nearby Kufa on Thursday.
Sistani arrived in Iraq on Wednesday after three weeks in London for heart treatment. The uprising had erupted as he left his adopted home in Najaf, Iraq’s center of Shi’ite learning.
Sadr, aged only about 30, has challenged the collegiate leadership of the Najaf clergy headed by Sistani and styled himself as the face of anti-U.S. Shi’ite resistance.
Elsewhere in Iraq violence, Allawi and his U.S. backers still face problems: A car bomb exploded near a U.S. military convoy in northern Iraq, wounding at least 10 civilians, and the Italian government confirmed on Thursday that hostage takers who grabbed Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni had killed him.
Al Jazeera television said Baldoni’s kidnappers killed him because Italy refused to withdraw troops from Iraq. Scores of foreigners have been taken hostage in Iraq in the last five months. Most have been released but several have been killed.
A Kuwaiti transport firm said on Friday it would halt its operations in Iraq after a group holding seven of its drivers hostage said it would release them if the firm left the country.
(Additional reporting by Omar Anwar and Khaled Farhan in Najaf)