Aides to Iraq's most senior Shia religious leader say radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has agreed to a plan to end the three-week-long standoff in the city of Najaf. The news came after tens of thousands of marchers converged on the city in support of the bid for peace.
The breakthrough came just hours after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani returned to Najaf after an absence of nearly three weeks.
The ayatollah left for medical treatment in London earlier this month, the day after the uprising erupted in Najaf. While he was gone, fighting raged around the Shrine of Imam Ali, one of the holiest sites in Shia Islam. Followers of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr battled first with U.S. troops and then against Iraqi forces as well.
The ayatollah returned to Najaf in a massive convoy Thursday afternoon and went directly into peace talks with Mr. al-Sadr.
Hours later, Ayatollah al-Sistani's aide, Hamed al-Khafaf, told reporters in Najaf that Mr. al-Sadr has agreed to the ayatollah's five-point plan for peace.
That proposal calls for Najaf and the adjacent town of Kufa to be declared weapons-free zones, and for all foreign troops to withdraw, leaving the cities' security to the Iraqi police. The plan also calls for compensation for victims of the unrest.
The crucial issue now will be implementing the deal.
Earlier in the day, tens of thousands of Iraqis descended upon Najaf in answer to the ayatollah's call for them to come and protect the shrine.
They came by bus, truck and carload, carrying posters of both Ayatollah al-Sistani and Mr. al-Sadr, as well as banners that said, "We are all under the umbrella of Sayyid al-Sistani." Many pilgrims abandoned their vehicles near the edge of the city and began walking toward the shrine.
But once they got there, confusion reigned. Marchers say Iraqi police and other security forces refused to let them pass. As they attempted to control the massive crowd, witnesses say the police opened fire.
One man said, "There was shooting, and many people were killed there."
Police say some of the participants fired on them first, and they were just returning fire, but most people in the crowd insisted that the gathering was peaceful.
Another man said, "Now they block the streets and prevent us from going to Ayatollah al-Sistani. We are not armed. I have no weapon, do you see me? They claim we attacked them, but we just came here to go to the holy shrine."
The vast majority of demonstrators were unarmed. But a VOA reporter saw several men with AK-47s marching along with the crowd. As the flow of traffic changed direction and people started heading back toward Kufa, someone began firing into the air. The crowd immediately began chanting, nearly drowning out the sound of gunfire.
Overall, the crowd seemed peaceful, although they grew much more agitated after being turned away from the shrine. The river of traffic leading into Najaf in the afternoon had reversed itself by early evening, and tens of thousands of pilgrims began returning to their homes in Baghdad, Diwaniyah and other cities.
But even as they left, more would-be marchers were still arriving in Najaf. A VOA reporter also saw at least 10 ambulances heading toward the city.
On the way out of Najaf, one ambulance got stuck in the traffic jam of other vehicles trying to leave.
Area hospitals were already overflowing with wounded from two attacks in Kufa early in the morning. Several mortars hit the main mosque in Kufa, where hundreds of people had gathered to await the march. Scores of people were killed and hundreds injured. Snipers also opened fire on the protesters as well.