BAGHDAD, Iraq – Shiite militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) agreed Saturday to begin handing in weapons, a significant step toward restoring order in Baghdad's sprawling Sadr City slum as the interim government struggles to curb Iraq's more widespread Sunni insurgency.
In a sign of persistent Sunni unrest, clashes flared in several cities as the search continued for the body of British hostage Kenneth Bigley, who was decapitated by his abductors — reportedly after a failed escape attempt.
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's (search) government hopes to quiet insurgent enclaves before legislative elections planned for January. U.S. and Iraqi officials have been negotiating for weeks with tribal and religious leaders in key rebel strongholds but have said they are prepared to use force if talks fail, as they did in Samarra last month.
Ali Smeisem, a senior aide to al-Sadr, said the Mahdi Army militia would begin turning in medium and heavy weapons at three Baghdad police stations Monday in an operation expected to last five days.
As a confidence-building measure, the government will suspend raids on al-Sadr's followers in the capital's northeastern Sadr City district, site of weeks of clashes with U.S. and Iraqi forces, Smeisem said.
The minister in charge of national security, Qassem Dawoud (search), said the government was pleased with the agreement, "which aims at sparing Iraqi blood, supporting sovereign law and the peace process in Iraq."
Dawoud told Al-Arabiya television that once officials verify the weapons handover is complete, they will begin paying compensation to people who lost property during the fighting and financing reconstruction projects. Iraqi police and soldiers will be in charge of law and order in the Shiite district, he added.
Al-Sadr's movement is still pressing for guarantees the government will stop pursuing members and release the cleric's detained followers but is willing to wait for a deal on those points, Smeisem said.
So far, al-Sadr has not pledged to disband his militia, a key U.S. and Iraqi government demand. But American and Iraqi authorities are eager to end the clashes in the Shiite stronghold so they can concentrate on suppressing the Sunni insurgency.
On that front, government and tribal negotiators have reported progress in talks aimed at restoring state control over Fallujah, an insurgent bastion 40 miles west of Baghdad. The city, believed to be a stronghold of Iraq's most feared terrorist group, Tawhid and Jihad, has been subjected to weeks of U.S. airstrikes.
Clashes broke out Saturday in Ramadi, another center of Sunni resistance west of Fallujah. U.S. troops traded gunfire with insurgents in at least three neighborhoods of the city 70 miles west of Baghdad, residents said. At least one Iraqi was killed and five others were wounded, the city hospital said. The U.S. military had no immediate information on the fighting.
About six miles east of Ramadi, a car bomb exploded as an American convoy drove on the road toward Baghdad, police said. One Humvee was damaged, but no casualties were reported, police 1st Lt. Ahmed al-Dulaimi said.
Insurgents fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S. patrol near Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, disabling a Humvee in an area that has been peaceful in recent months, the military said. There were no casualties.
In Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad, about 20 masked insurgents pulled up in front of the local municipal council in four cars, told employees to leave and then blew up the building without causing any casualties.
Meanwhile, authorities searched for the body of Bigley, whose grisly beheading was recorded on video footage delivered Friday to Abu Dhabi TV. The station refused to broadcast the tape.
A U.S. official in Washington said there were credible reports Bigley tried to escape with the help of one of his captors before he was killed. There was no word on the fate of his accomplice.
A masked gunman claiming to be familiar with Bigley's kidnappers told The Associated Press the hostage managed to elude his 10 guards Thursday. He was located the next morning in a deserted area, carrying a gun, the man said.
Bigley was killed soon after, the gunman said. He provided no further details.
Officials in Baghdad refused to comment on the report.
Bigley's widow, a native of Thailand, issued a statement Saturday asking for privacy while she mourns.
"No words can express the agony I feel for the loss of my husband Ken. He was a good man and a loving, caring husband. He went to Iraq to help the Iraqi people," a tearful Sombat Bigley, 35, said in a videotaped message shown at the British Embassy in Bangkok.
Bigley, 62, was seized with two American colleagues from their homes in an upscale Baghdad neighborhood Sept. 16. The two Americans, Eugene Armstrong, 52, and Jack Hensley, 48, were beheaded days later.
Tawhid and Jihad, lead by Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, claimed responsibility for the abductions and killings.
More than 150 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq, some for ransom and others as leverage against the United States and its allies. Bigley was at least the 28th to be killed.