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Iraqi Cleric Sadr Pulls Fighters from Holy City
NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi Shi'ite militiamen began pulling out of strongholds in the holy city of Najaf on Thursday after rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr offered a truce to U.S. forces surrounding him.
U.S. commanders, who have dismissed previous offers during seven weeks of fighting across southern Iraq, declined comment on Sadr's latest offer which was conditional on the suspension of a murder case for which he is wanted.
But, following the capture of one of Sadr's top lieutenants on Wednesday, Najaf passed a first night for some time without major clashes between U.S. troops and Sadr's Mehdi Army.
And a senior Iraqi official said the U.S. authorities would agree to the deal: "The coalition is going to announce its respect for the deal within the next couple of hours," national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie told Reuters.
Any deal with the firebrand young preacher could staunch a major source of trouble for U.S. troops as Washington prepares to hand over to an Iraqi interim government on June 30.
Violence remains widespread, however. The U.S. military said on Thursday three Marines were killed in the west a day earlier.
Squad commanders from Sadr's Mehdi Army militia told Reuters in Najaf they had orders to quit their positions by noon (4 a.m. EDT). As armed men began moving from positions, squad leader Ali Abu Zahra said he had formal instructions from Sadr to move his unit out: "It was a written and verbal order."
"I am optimistic about arriving at an agreement in the coming few hours," said Sadr aide Ahmed Shebani. "I can say there are extensive efforts to solve this crisis."
Rubaie, quoting a statement signed by Sadr, told Reuters the cleric was willing to pull members of his Mehdi Army militia who are not normally resident in Najaf out of the city and had demanded in return that a murder case for which he is wanted be suspended. He also called on U.S. forces to return to barracks.
Sadr's statement, quoted by Rubaie, said: "To end the tragic situation in Najaf and the violation...of the holy places, I announce my agreement to the following: an end to all armed demonstrations, the evacuation of government buildings...and the withdrawal of all Mehdi Army fighters."
The U.S. authorities in Iraq have insisted in the past that Sadr face the Iraqi murder charge and disband his forces.
U.S. troops seized a relative and senior lieutenant to Sadr early on Wednesday, Riyad al-Noury, who was also wanted over the same murder, of a rival Shi'ite cleric in Najaf a year ago.
Sadr's uprising against the occupation, launched in early April after U.S. forces arrested another of his top aides and vowed to kill or capture the cleric himself, has divided opinion in Iraq's 60-percent majority Shi'ite Muslim community.
Thousands of poorly trained and religiously inspired young men have flocked to Sadr's cause.
U.S. commanders have been driven to lament the ease with which troops have been able to kill dozens of youths daily as they stand up to tanks with machineguns and grenade launchers.
But Shi'ite elders have been incensed at the way they have used the sanctuary of Iraq's holiest shrines to mount attacks.
A gateway at Najaf's Imam Ali mosque, the holy of holies, was slightly damaged earlier this week, prompting new religious outrage against both Sadr's fighters and U.S. forces.
Having swept much of Shi'ite southern Iraq last month, when Sadr's fighters took over city centers, police stations and other key buildings, fighting has been confined in the past week mainly to the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala.
Kerbala, 30 miles from Najaf, has been relatively quiet since Saturday, although U.S. commanders denied reaching any specific agreement with Sadr's forces there.
Sadr called for U.S. troops to pull back to their bases in Najaf, leaving Iraqi police on patrol. He also called for negotiations with Shi'ite leaders on the future of his forces.
U.S. plans for a handover to an Iraqi government came under renewed fire, with China insisting on a deadline for an American troop pullout amid more confusion over chains of command.
Hussain Shahristani, a nuclear scientist jailed by Saddam Hussein, was first tipped by U.S. officials to be prime minister in an interim government, then ruled out.
In fresh criticism of a draft U.N. resolution presented by Washington and London on Monday, China proposed changes that would set a time limit on the U.S.-led multinational force's stay in Iraq after the occupation ends officially on June 30.
China has a veto in the Security Council. France, Russia, Germany and Spain have made similar objections. Paris and Moscow say they will seek amendments to strengthen Iraqi sovereignty.
The existing draft asks for an effectively open-ended mandate for the U.S.-led force, to be reviewed in a year.
Balancing the various religious and ethnic groups among Iraq's 26 million people is the essential task of United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who is expected to present the line-up of a 30-strong interim administration in a week or so.