BAGHDAD ø Iraq's interim government blinked first in the
showdown with the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army.
Iraqi officials said Prime Minister Iyad Alawi has agreed that the Mahdi
Army could withdraw from the Imam Ali mosque compound in Najaf with its
weapons. Alawi also dropped his demand for the Shi'ite insurgency movement
to renounce violence.
The arrangement was meant to end a 17-day battle in Najaf by U.S.
military forces against the Mahdi Army. Alawi ordered a halt to the U.S.
military advance, which reached within 200 meters of the Imam Ali complex.
By Saturday, fighting resumed between U.S. troops and Shi'ite
insurgents, Middle East Newsline reported. Both sides traded mortar, rocket-propelled grenade and machine
gun fire, and officials reported the downing of a U.S. unmanned aerial
vehicle. On early Sunday, U.S. warplanes bombed the old city of Najaf, but
there were no reports of U.S. troops moving closer to the mosque.
The Iraqi government agreement called for the Mahdi Army, led by Moqtada
Sadr, to withdraw from the mosque compound. The insurgents would then
hand over the keys to aides of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, regarded as the
Shi'ite cleric in Iraq.
But the Mahdi Army failed to transfer authority to Sistani because it
would not guarantee the departure of all of its fighters. Sistani's aides
said they would not accept the keys to the mosque until the insurgents had
"We are continuing to do planning and preparations for continuous
offensive operations to get Mahdi militia destroyed, to capture Moqtada
Sadr and to turn the holy shrine back to the Iraqi people," Lt. Col.
Myles Miyamasu, of the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division, said.
The agreement between the Mahdi Army and the government on Aug. 20 fell
short of Baghdad's demands. Alawi had called on the Mahdi Army to surrender
its weapons and renounce violence. He also provided an ultimatum in which
Iraqi forces would storm Mahdi strongholds.
But Alawi did not order any Iraqi attack in Najaf. The prime minister
did not explain, but officials said several Iraqi commanders refused to
order Shi'ite troops into battle.