Al-Sistani forces al-Sadr to lay down his weapons

Najaf (AsiaNews/Agencies) – As the sun was rising this morning loudspeakers blared the same message: "Moqtada al-Sadr orders all of his followers to leave the Imam Ali shrine by 10 a.m. (6 a.m. G.M.T.) and lay down their weapons." Three weeks after the radical Shiite leader and his militants turned the shrine into blockhouse the siege was over.

Hamed al-Khafaf, spokesman for Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, announced last night that al-Sadr had accepted al-Sistani's peace plan. Some fighters loyal to the radical cleric were seen loading weapons on a trolley to be taken away.

Al-Sistani had reached Najaf yesterday along with thousands of Shiite pilgrims, but Iraqi police had to stop them from entering the shrine because the compound had yet to be secured.

In the course of the evening al-Sistani presented al-Sadr with his plan. The Grande Ayatollah used all his prestige and moral weight to get the young firebrand leader to accept his conditions.

Al-Sistani's plan has three key points: ceasefire, withdrawal of al-Sadr's fighters and US and Iraqi troops from Najaf, and the Imam Ali shrine placed under al-Sistani's control. Overall security for Najaf would revert to Iraqi police.

Iraq's government accepted al-Sistani's plan calling it "a great victory". "Brothers," Iraqi Minister of State Qassim Daoud said, "we have crossed the threshold of peace."

"Our forces will respect the ceasefire called by Prime Minister Allawi," said Darla Jordan, a spokeswoman for the US Department of State in Washington. (LF)