The U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq has agreed to suspend offensive operations in Najaf, after Iraqi leaders struck a deal with radical Shi'ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr. A member of Iraq's Governing Council escaped unharmed when her convoy was ambushed traveling from Najaf to Baghad.
Shi'ite leaders negotiated the arrangement to end weeks of fighting between coalition forces and Moqtada al-Sadr's militia in the holy city of Najaf.
Under the deal, the cleric's militia will withdraw from Najaf and neighboring Kufa, in exchange for the pullback of American troops and the suspension of a warrant for his arrest in connection with the murder of a rival cleric last year.
Coalition spokesman Dan Senor called the arrangement a positive first step, but said more moves are needed.
"The process also includes, at later stages, obviously, that Moqtada al-Sadr meet the requirements in the arrest warrant and that he dissolves and disarms his militia, his illegal militia," he said. "Those still stand. This is a first step. We think it is a positive first step. We are going to monitor it very closely."
Some American forces will remain in Najaf to protect coalition offices and other buildings.
Coalition forces will pull out of most of Najaf when Iraqi security forces re-enter the city.
The announcement came after heavy fighting that caused minor damage to Shi'ite Islam's holiest site, the Imam Ali Shrine.
A U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt, said that the agreement will reopen Najaf to religious pilgrims.
"All of us recognize that this is a very positive step, not only for the coalition forces who can reduce their presence in Najaf, but also for the Iraqi people who can get back in, which has always been one of our ultimate goals," he stated. "Which is to get Iraqi control back in to the city of Najaf, so that instead of being held hostage by Moqtada al-Sadr and his militia, we can open that city back up to its capability to allow the followers of the Shi'ite faith to come back in, and pray at their most holy of shrines."
Moqtada al-Sadr's revolt stirred up violence in formerly peaceful Shi'ite areas in Baghdad and southern Iraq, further challenging U.S.-led forces who were already battling Sunni Muslim insurgents in other parts of the country.
American commanders are eager to quell the violence before sovereignty is handed over to an interim Iraqi government June 30.
Meanwhile, Britain has announced it is sending 370 more troops to Iraq.
Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told parliament the new forces will include more armor and royal engineers, who will harden facilities against mortar and rocket attacks.
Mr. Hoon left open the possibility of more troop additions in the future, if the situation warrants.
"It remains the case that we, with our coalition partners, are considering levels and dispositions of forces required in Iraq in the months ahead to support, in particular, the sovereign interim government of Iraq through the process leading to the election of a transitional assembly and government early in 2005," he said. "If we judge that further changes to the U.K. military contribution in Iraq would be appropriate to support this process, we will, of course, inform the House at the earliest opportunity."
The new deployments will bring the British troop total in Iraq to nearly 9000.