Thousands of pilgrims streamed into the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf on Friday and militants left, handing the keys to Shiite religious authorities after Iraq's top Shiite cleric brokered a peace deal to end three weeks of fighting in this holy city.
Dozens of Iraqi police and national guardsmen deployed around the compound of the walled, golden-domed shrine in the Old City Friday afternoon — but did not enter. Some kissed the compound's gates, others burst into tears. Some residents of the devastated Old City neighborhood waved to them and yelled out, "Welcome. Welcome."
Militants piled Kalashnikov rifles in front of the offices of their leader, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Thousands of al-Sadr's militiamen were still believed to be armed in the city, though most were staying off the streets. In one narrow alley, some fighters could be seen pushing carts full of machine-guns and rocket launchers.
Iraqi forces took control of the Old City, the neighborhood of winding alleys where the shrine is located. U.S. forces appeared to have maintained their positions in the Old City.
In other developments:
Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which has risen up against U.S. forces twice this year, remains intact under the peace deal. But the transfer of the Imam Ali Shrine, one of Shia Islam's holiest sites, robs them of a refuge and stronghold that helped them stand up against U.S. forces. American forces could not assault the shrine for fear of enraging Iraq's Shiite majority.
The Health Ministry said 110 people were killed and 501 were wounded in Najaf and Kufa on Thursday. Twenty-seven of the dead were killed when mortars slammed into Kufa's main mosque, where thousands had gathered to march into Najaf in support of al-Sistani's mission.
After a day of prayers and celebrations at the shrine civilians and fighters left, and al-Sadr's followers handed over the keys to the site to religious authorities loyal to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the esteemed cleric who secured the peace deal.
"Now the holy shrine compound has been evacuated and its keys have been handed over to the religious authority," al-Sistani aide Hamed al-Khafaf told Al-Arabiya television.
The handover the keys was a symbolic, yet crucial, step in ending the bloody crisis that has plagued this city since Aug. 5, killing hundreds of Iraqis and nine U.S. troops, ravaging parts of the Old City and threatening the control of Iraq's interim government.
Al-Sadr ordered his fighters to lay down their arms and leave Najaf and neighboring Kufa after agreeing to the peace deal in a face-to-face meeting the night before with al-Sistani.
"To all my brothers in Mahdi Army ... you should leave Kufa and Najaf without your weapons, along with the peaceful masses," al-Sadr said in a statement broadcast over the shrine's loudspeakers.
Iraq's interim government also accepted the deal, and U.S. forces ordered their troops to ceasefire. Police briefly exchanged fire with militants in one part of town Friday, and some U.S. troops were still receiving occasional sniper fire. Nevertheless, most of the city was calm.
Al-Sistani's highly publicized, 11th-hour peace mission also boosts his already high prestige in Iraq and cloaks him in a statesman's mantle, showing that only he could force an accord between two sides that loathe each other.
The 75-year-old al-Sistani returned to Iraq after heart treatment in London to intervene for the first time in the bloody conflict, drawing thousands of followers who marched on Najaf and massed on its outskirts.
The five-point peace plan put forward by al-Sistani calls for Najaf and Kufa to be declared weapons-free cities, for all foreign forces to withdraw from Najaf, for police to be in charge of security, for the government to compensate those harmed by the fighting, and for a census to be taken to prepare for elections expected in the country by January.
There was no immediate word if the U.S. military would accept the provisions on the agreement calling on its forces to leave Najaf, though military leaders have said they were fighting there only at the behest of the government.
Iraq State Minister Qassim Dawoud said the Iraqi government would not try to arrest al-Sadr, who is sought in the slaying of a rival cleric last year. The government has said it wants al-Sadr to turn his militia into a political party.