Iraqi: U.S. Proposes 72-Hour Pullout for Militia

U.S.-led coalition authorities have proposed that a radical Shiite cleric's militia withdraw from Najaf over a 72-hour period, the governor of the holy Shiite city said Tuesday.

In return, the American troops would stay away from Shiite holy sites in the twin cities of Najaf and Kufa and "reposition" their forces, according to U.S.-appointed Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi.

The Americans would maintain a presence, but stay far from the holy sites. They will also have joint patrols with Iraqi security forces in other parts of the city, he added.

Al-Zurufi said the proposal was contained in a letter from coalition authorities as part of ongoing deliberations to save a rapidly crumbling cease-fire in Najaf and Kufa, which was announced last Thursday by Shiite leaders.

"The elements who came from outside Najaf would leave behind the weapons inside the province and those would be turned over to coalition authorities," al-Zurufi said of the letter's proposal, referring to al-Mahdi Army (search) loyal to rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search).

Ahmad al-Shibani, a member from al-Sadr's office in Najaf, said the Shiite delegation has not yet discussed the content of the letter with al-Sadr's group but that they are likely to have objections. On one point, he said he didn't know whether the militia would agree to joint Iraqi-U.S. patrols or to give up their arms.

There was no comment from the U.S. military or from civilian coalition authorities.

Tuesday's proposal also calls for the dissolving of a religious court set up by al-Sadr in the 72-hour time period. All those imprisoned by that court would be set free, al-Zurufi said.

He also said two police stations would be set up near the Imam Ali shrine — the Shiite Muslim world's most revered place — and that Iraqi police would retake control of the Kufa police station occupied by al-Sadr's militia.

Troubles emerged in the sacred Shiite twin cities, 100 miles south of Baghdad, in April, after occupation authorities cracked down on al-Sadr's militia, closing his newspaper and announcing an arrest warrant against him for the murder of a rival cleric. Al-Sadr's supporters took to the streets, vowing to protect him.

A two-month standoff followed, with bouts of heavy fighting between the militia and U.S. troops.

But under last week's deal, al-Sadr agreed to send his fighters home and start talks over the future of his militia and his arrest warrant. He demanded that U.S. troops withdraw to their bases in exchange.

Al-Zurufi, the governor, said al-Sadr's case and the future of the al-Mahdi army would be discussed in later talks.

The Americans have been doubtful, saying there has been little sign al-Sadr has complied with the terms from last week. The continuing clashes have increased in intensity in the days following the deal's announcement, with al-Mahdi Army fighters blaming the Americans for violating the "truce."