Iraq’s highest Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has agreed to take control of the shrine, which the al-Sadr gunmen had been using as a refuge during their uprising against U.S. and Iraqi troops.
By Friday night, local time, al-Sadr’s loyalists were still in control of the shrine but no longer bringing weapons into it, according to an Associated Press reporter inside the walled compound. No Iraqi police or security forces were inside.
Armed militiamen stood outside the shrine, but when they entered the building they handed their guns to their comrades outside and reclaimed them when they exited, the AP reported.
The surprise move came a day after Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi demanded the militia leave the shrine or face an onslaught by Iraqi forces.
On Thursday and into Friday, U.S. warplanes bombed militia positions in Najaf in fighting that killed 77 people and wounded 70 others.
When Najaf quieted Friday, Allawi stepped back from his threats, telling BBC radio, “We are not going to attack the mosque, we are not going to attack Muqtada al-Sadr and the mosque, evidently we are not going to do this.”
The Iraqi government is encouraging al-Sadr and his supporters to enter the political process.
Al-Sadr has so far rejected the government’s demand that he disband his Mahdi Army.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sabah Kadhim said al-Sadr may have escaped from the compound overnight. He appealed to al-Sadr to turn himself in so he could be covered by an amnesty Allawi has offered to some of those opposing his government, Reuters reported.
Also Friday, U.S. soldiers on patrol north of Baghdad in Samarra were attacked by an “improvised explosive device,” which killed one soldier and wounded four others, said Maj. Neal O’Brien, a spokesman for the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division.
Two Marines were killed in action in Iraq’s volatile Anbar province earlier this week.
As of Thursday, 947 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the U.S. Defense Department.