Radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr agreed Wednesday to withdraw his militia from Najaf and hand the city back to Iraqi police, the government said, raising hopes for an end to weeks of fighting that threatened some of Shia Islam's holiest sites.
The announcement by National Security Adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie took place after U.S. troops arrested al-Sadr's key lieutenant in a pre-dawn raid. Clashes late Tuesday and early Wednesday between U.S. troops and militia fighters killed 24 people and wounded nearly 50 here, hospital and militia officials said.
There was no confirmation by al-Sadr. However, an agreement to abandon Najaf would be a major step toward ending his uprising in the south only weeks before a new Iraqi government takes power June 30, formally ending the U.S.-led occupation.
Al-Sadr said he is making this offer because of "the tragic condition'' in Najaf after weeks of fighting between his militiamen and the Americans and the slight damage suffered by the city's holiest shrine, the Imam Ali mosque.
In other developments: With signs of hope on the security front, steps toward organizing a new government hit a snag Wednesday when a leading candidate for prime minister, Dr. Hussain al-Shahristani, took himself out of the running. Three U.S. Marines were killed in action Wednesday west of the Iraqi capital, the U.S. military said.
A statement from the command said the deaths occurred in Anbar province "while conducting security and stability operations." No further details were released. A top aide to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr was captured during heavy fighting overnight between U.S. troops and al-Sadr's gunmen, in which 24 people were killed.An Army report indicates the abuse of prisoners may be wider than previously reported. A National Guard unit is accused of asphyxiating detainees, and some prisoners who died were never autopsied.Masked gunmen opened fire on a convoy taking Russian technicians to work at a Baghdad power station, killing two and wounding at least five, Iraqi and Russian officials said. One Iraqi was also killed, police said. The Russian company said it would evacuate all staff from Iraq.The Polish command said a coalition base outside of Karbala, 50 miles north of Najaf, came under mortar fire late Tuesday. Demolition teams also defused three roadside bombs in the area.The military says U.S. forces killed six insurgents during a battle in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown. U.S. troops opened fire on a car in downtown Kirkuk, killing a man and injuring his wife, an Iraqi police official said Wednesday.A U.S. soldier who deserted his Iraq-bound regiment and sought asylum in Canada said the U.S war in Iraq was illegal and he accused the United States of committing war crimes. Pfc. Jeremy Hinzman, 25, is believed to be the first U.S. soldier to apply for refugee status in Canada after refusing combat duty in Iraq.A road accident south of Tikrit killed a U.S. soldier and injured two.The U.S. administration is hoping a new U.N. resolution will induce fence-sitting governments — maybe even some Arab states — to send peacekeeping troops to Iraq. So far, though, the United States has few takers.Laboratory tests have confirmed that the chemical weapon sarin was in the remains of a roadside bomb found in Baghdad earlier this month, U.S. government officials say. The New York Times apologized for some of its reporting of allegations about Iraq's weapons programs or ties to terror, for which little or no proof has been found. London and Washington appeared divided Tuesday over whether the Iraqis should be able to veto activities by coalition forces after the June 30 transfer of sovereignty.
© 2004 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.