U.S. withdraws from Shi'ite cities

Friday, May 28, 2004

BAGHDAD The U.S. military has agreed to withdraw from two Shi'ite cities in an effort to avoid a full-scale battle with the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army.

U.S. officials said U.S. and coalition forces agreed to pull out of Kufa and Najaf as part of an arrangement reached between local Shi'ite clerics and Mahdi Army chief Moqtada Sadr. The officials said the U.S. withdrawal would be immediate and followed by an eventual pullout by Sadr's forces.

This was the second arrangement reached between the U.S. military and Iraqi insurgents meant to ensure coalition withdrawal from an Iraqi city. Earlier this month, U.S. forces pulled out of the Sunni-dominated city of Faluja for an agreement that allowed for the entry of an Iraqi security force commanded by a former Saddam general.

But hours after the Shi'ite arrangement was announced, Mahdi Army troops declared victory and said they would not leave Najaf. By Friday, U.S. troops and Mahdi Army combatants resumed fighting in the city, Middle East Newsline reported. There were no reports of casualties.

Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak Rubaie said the Mahdi Army did not agree to a complete withdrawal from Najaf. Rubaie said Sadr said only militia members who were not residents of Najaf would leave the city. In his letter to Shi'ite clerics, Sadr was also said to have pledged that the Mahdi Army would end street patrols and evacuate government buildings.

Officials described the U.S. withdrawal as part of a temporary arrangement. They said the Mahdi Army sustained heavy losses in combat with the U.S.-led coalition, with more than 100 Shi'ite fighters being killed over the past week.

"What we're hoping to see in a very short period of time is Iraqi police vehicles going through, Iraqi policemen on the corners of the city, Iraqi police buildings back in operation, the governor being able to talk about how to take Najaf forward," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy director of coalition operations, said.

Officials said the U.S.-led coalition force agreed to halt offensive operations in Kufa and Najaf. Instead, Iraqi security forces would patrol the cities while U.S. troops and their allies would assume positions nearby.

"As soon as the Iraqi security forces have assumed responsibility for public security and re-established law and order, coalition forces will reposition to their bases outside Najaf [and Kufa] while maintaining protective units at the CPA offices and the government building and Iraqi police stations," Coalition Provisional Authority senior adviser Dan Senor said.

Officials said Sadr was not given a deadline to complete the withdrawal of his forces. In April, Sadr led the Shi'ite revolt by his Mahdi Army against coalition forces throughout central and southern Iraq. The revolt resulted in the defection and collapse of numerous Iraqi police and security units.

Officials said the military and CPA would not immediately pursue plans to prosecute Sadr and disband his militia. Instead, they said, the two U.S. demands would be discussed between Sadr and Shi'ite clerics. Sadr has been accused of ordering the killing of a leading Shi'ite cleric in April 2003.

"We have not altered our position with regard to the need to dissolve and disarm Moqtada's militia throughout Iraq or with Moqtada Al Sadr's obligation to meet the requirements of the arrest warrant issued to him," Senor said. "Throughout the process, coalition forces will retain the inherent right of self-defense."

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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