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Thursday, August 26, 2004 Posted: 5:21 PM EDT (2121 GMT)
NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have reached an agreement to secure peace in war-torn Najaf, al-Sistani aides said Thursday.
As part of the deal, Iraq's government won't press murder charges against renegade cleric al-Sadr, said Kasim Daoud, Iraq's minister of state for military affairs.
"Muqtada al-Sadr is free to go anywhere he likes. ... He is as free as any Iraqi citizen," Daoud said.
Al-Sadr was wanted by Iraqi authorities in connection with the killing of a rival cleric in April 2003.
Daoud said followers of al-Sadr are expected to leave the Imam Ali Mosque before 10 a.m. (2 a.m. ET) Friday.
Al-Sistani and al-Sadr held negotiations in a house in Najaf, al Sistani's deputy said.
An al-Sistani spokesman, Hamid al-Khafaf, said the deal is aimed at ending three weeks of fighting that have ravaged Najaf and nearby Kufa.
Al-Khafaf said the men had agreed on several points:
Multinational forces are to leave both cities, leaving security to local forces.
Najaf and Kufa are to be weapons-free cities.
Compensation is to be paid to victims of the violence.
Legitimate elections will be held.
Al-Sistani, Iraq's most powerful Shiite Muslim cleric, arrived in Najaf on Thursday after weeks of failed negotiation between Iraq's interim government and al-Sadr.
Bloodshed has escalated in recent days in the Najaf area and spread to the nearby city of Kufa, where a mortar attack on the main mosque Thursday morning killed 25 people and wounded scores of others.
Al-Sistani -- returning to Iraq after undergoing a medical procedure in England -- arrived as the Iraqi government and al-Sadr made moves to bring a halt to the three weeks of fighting.
Iraq's interim prime minister and Najaf's governor had called for a cease-fire.
U.S. Marines in the area and Iraqi security forces suspended "offensive military operations" to facilitate the peace efforts, Marine Capt. Carrie Batson said.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have been battling fighters loyal to al-Sadr.
For weeks, the cleric's Mehdi Army held control of the Imam Ali Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam.
Al-Khafaf said representatives of the two clerics started initial discussions via telephone.
The ayatollah called on demonstrators converging on Najaf to stay in their homes or stay where they are until further notice, al-Hafaf said. Al-Sistani earlier had called on Iraqis to march to Najaf to help put an end to the violence. (al-Sistani profile)
Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi on Thursday ordered a 24-hour halt to military operations in Najaf, which went into effect at 3 p.m. (7 a.m. ET).
In a statement released Thursday, Allawi reminded "outlaw militias that the amnesty law is still standing and open to all the elements that opt for peace and merge into the civil society. The Iraqi government will secure means for them to hand over their weapons and leave the holy [Imam Ali] Mosque peacefully."
Earlier, the governor of Najaf, Adnan al-Zurufi, ordered a cease-fire, saying it would allow the safe passage of negotiators to move about safely.
Before U.S. and Iraqi forces suspended offensive military operations in the area Thursday, new explosions early in the day hit near the Imam Ali Mosque. It was the fifth consecutive night of airstrikes on central Najaf by U.S. forces. A large column of smoke could be seen rising from a building.
Demonstrators fired on Unidentified snipers opened fire on thousands of demonstrators Thursday, killing 23 people, a hospital official said, as they made their way from Kufa to Najaf's Old City. More than 100 people were wounded in the attack, the official said.
Kufa is about six miles (10 kilometers) east of Najaf.
The demonstrators said they were responding to al-Sistani's call for peaceful protests in Najaf to "rescue" the city. Al-Sadr supporters were among the demonstrators.
Earlier, the same demonstrators had gathered at a Kufa mosque where a mortar attack killed 25 people and wounded 60 others, according to Iraqi officials. The mosque did not sustain any major damage.
Some witnesses said they believe the mortars or rockets came from a nearby U.S. military base.
But the U.S. military denied any involvement in the attack, saying its forces have not conducted military operations in the area for more than 48 hours.
The Najaf governor blamed "terrorist organizations from al Qaeda" for the mosque bombing.
A mortar attack killed an American soldier Wednesday night in Baghdad, the U.S. military said. The death brings the number of U.S. troops killed in the Iraq war to 971, including 726 killed in hostile action and 245 in "nonhostile" activities, according to the U.S. military.
Video by a group calling itself the Secret Islamic Army, Black Banners Brigades was aired Thursday on Arabic-language Al Arabiya television. The video showed seven hostage truck drivers who were kidnapped in Iraq on July 21. The captors promised to release the men -- three Indians, three Kenyans and an Egyptian -- if their employer -- Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Co. -- stops doing business in Iraq. The kidnappers have changed their demands several times since the hostages were captured and have threatened to behead the men.
Two Turkish companies began pulling staff and equipment out of Iraq "to save the lives" of two employees held captive by Islamic militants, a state-run news agency reported Thursday. A group calling itself Mujahid Imam Brigades on Wednesday issued a video showing the two electrical workers, identified as Abdullah Ozdemir and Ali Daskin.
CNN's Kianne Sadeq in Najaf, and Kevin Flower, Diana Muriel, Cal Perry and John Vause contributed to this report.
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