U.S. troops and radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) agreed to a three-day truce Friday in negotiations to end the standoff at this holy Shiite city, although al-Sadr still branded the United States "the enemy of Islam."
Despite Washington's vow to "kill or capture" al-Sadr, the fiery young cleric has freely moved back and forth between his office in Najaf (search) — near the shrines — to Kufa to deliver Friday prayers for the past three weeks.
Lt. Col. Pat White said the military did not move against al-Sadr to give negotiations a chance and to show respect for Friday, the Islamic day of prayer. He added that U.S. forces will closely monitor al-Sadr's sermons.
Preaching on Friday in Kufa, al-Sadr remained defiant.
"Some people have asked me to tone down my words and to avoid escalation with the Americans," al-Sadr said. "My response is that I reject any appeasement with the occupation and I will not give up defending the rights of the believers. America is the enemy of Islam and Muslims and jihad is the path of my ancestors."
Despite his rhetoric, al-Sadr showed signs of willingness to compromise, apparently hoping to avoid capture on the murder charge that triggered the confrontation with the United States.
Friday's truce emerged from meetings among Najaf's police chief, tribal leaders and political and religious groups. Talks focused on a proposal for police to take over security in Najaf and for al-Sadr's al-Mahdi militia (search) to leave.
Under the proposal, the swap would take place if American forces promise not to enter the city or take action against its holy sites, Ahmed Shaybani, an al-Sadr spokesman, told The Associated Press.
The police chief, Gen. Ali al-Yasser, arranged the truce to last through Sunday, said Faisal Mathbob, a tribal representative who attended the meeting.
The meeting also formed a 12-member negotiating committee representing al-Sadr tribes and political and religious parties. The police chief was to meet with the Americans to see if they would hold talks with the committee.
Al-Sadr's office issued a statement Friday agreeing to disarm his al-Mahdi Army militia and hand the security of Najaf to police. In a sign al-Sadr was hoping to avoid arrest, the statement demanded "all legal procedures against Muqtada al-Sadr be halted until an elected government is formed."
The statement also called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the holy city.
Hundreds of U.S. troops are deployed outside the Najaf-Kufa area, and a contingent has moved into a base within the city, about three miles from its Shiite shrines. The Americans have clashed occasionally with al-Sadr followers outside the city.
U.S. commanders say they will stay far away from the sensitive holy sites, aiming to avoid a furious backlash from Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority if the sites even appear threatened.
Meanwhile, U.S. troops dismantled several checkpoints they had set up outside Kufa and Najaf. Inside Najaf, fewer militiamen were visible on the streets, except in the shrine areas, where they are concentrated.
The Najaf negotiations came as the United States reached an agreement aimed at ending the Marine siege of Fallujah, west of Baghdad. The deal allows Marines to pull back and a new Iraqi force would take over security in the city, a stronghold of Sunni guerrillas.
Al-Sadr is accused of having a role in the slaying of a rival cleric last year. The U.S. military moved to capture him after his militia staged an uprising across the south, sparked by the arrest of one of his aides. The uprising has died down but al-Sadr's militiamen still dominate Najaf, Kufa and Karbala, Iraq's holiest Shiite cities.
One tribal leader who attended Friday's talks said al-Sadr wants a peaceful settlement because he knows he doesn't stand a chance against America's formidable army.
"Al-Sadr's wants a face-saving way out of this crisis," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He shot himself in the foot by boasting all this time that he will do this and that to the Americans — that Najaf will be their graveyard.
"But he had no military power. Najaf is not Fallujah (search) which is armed to the teeth by the Saddam's forces who had prepared themselves for a fight with the Americans," he said, explaining that al-Sadr's support was limited, and mainly drawn from youths and thugs.