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Shia Muslims Flock to Najaf Shrine After Peace Deal - 2004-08-27

Thousands of Iraqi Shia Muslims have flocked to the Shrine of Imam Ali in the city of Najaf in what appears to be a real end to three weeks of fighting.

Thousands of pilgrims converged on the shrine for Friday prayers, chanting and pounding on their chests.

The mosque loudspeaker broadcast a message from radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who ordered his followers to leave not just the shrine, but also the cities of Najaf and Kufa.

The twin cities have been the sites of heavy fighting for weeks, and Mr. al-Sadr's militia has used the shrine as a base of operations.

But late Thursday, he agreed to a peace deal proposed by Iraq's most senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The ayatollah returned to Najaf after a three-week absence for medical treatment, and immediately went into peace talks with his junior colleague.

His plan called for Najaf and Kufa to be declared weapons-free zones, and for all foreign troops to withdraw from the holy cities, leaving their security in the hands of the Iraqi police. He also called for compensation for victims of the violence.

On Friday, several journalists in Najaf say they saw carts full of guns and rocket launchers being pushed away from the shrine. Iraqi police searched worshippers leaving the mosque and found the vast majority of them unarmed.

U.S. troops maintained their positions around the holy site for the time being, but the shooting had finally stopped.

Just 48 hours earlier, the shrine was still the center of fierce battles between U.S. troops and Mr. al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army.

Meanwhile, the al-Jazeera satellite TV network says it has a videotape showing the apparent killing of an Italian journalist.

Reporter Enzo Baldoni disappeared last week on the way to Najaf from Baghdad. A group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq later released a videotape of the Italian journalist in captivity. The group did not specifically threaten to kill him, but said it "could not guarantee his safety," unless Italy withdrew its nearly 3,000 troops from Iraq.

The Italian and Iraqi soccer teams were scheduled to play each other at the Athens Olympics later Friday. Both teams announced they would wear black armbands in honor of Mr. Baldoni.