BAGHDAD, Aug. 27 -- Scores of militiamen loyal to rebellious cleric Moqtada Sadr put down their weapons in Najaf Friday while thousands of Iraqis streamed into the once-besieged shrine of Imam Ali following an agreement brokered overnight by the top Shiite Muslim religious figure in Iraq.
U.S. forces, in turn, pulled out of positions they have occupied since early August in the center of the city and moved to less conspicuous positions elsewhere in the city. In their place, a long convoy of Iraqi army and national guard forces was moving into the holy city Najaf.
Chanting Iraqi Shiites converge on Najaf's Imam Ali shrine after a peace deal was reached overnight to end a three-week uprising.
(Chris Helgren - Reuters)
_____Peace Deal Reached_____
Video: Thousands of pilgrims streamed into the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf Friday after a peace deal by the top Shiite Muslim religious figure in Iraq.
_____Battle for Najaf_____
Who Is Sadr? More on the Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army has been fighting U.S. and Iraqi troops.
Meanwhile, men in surgical masks went down streets reeking with the stench of death and collected the bodies of militiamen killed in the fighting with Americans over the past few weeks.
And the city, one of the most lethal battlegrounds of the war in Iraq, appeared calm for the first time in a month, having avoided, at least for now, a confrontation at the shrine that threatened to enflame the entire Muslim world.
The agreement was arranged Thursday by Iraq's most revered cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Under it, rebellious cleric Moqtada Sadr pledged to withdraw his militia from the contested shrine and other parts of the city of Najaf after three weeks of fighting against U.S. and Iraqi forces.
In exchange for Sadr's compliance, the government pledged to pull U.S. military forces out of Najaf and to allow Sadr, who had been wanted by the former U.S. occupation authority on murder charges, to participate in politics.
"He is as free as any Iraqi citizen to do whatever he would like in Iraq," said Qasim Dawood, a minister of state, after announcing the government's acceptance of the peace plan arranged by Sistani.
At 6:30 a.m. Friday, authorities in Najaf permitted the pilgrims to enter the city and walk toward the shrine. The crowd, estimated at more than 10,000 people, was searched for weapons by Iraqi police officers at the edge of Najaf's Old City district, where the shrine is located.
Two hours later, a message conveyed from Sadr was broadcast from the shrine's loudspeakers instructing militiamen to depart with the crowd. "Drop your weapons and leave Najaf and Kufa," the announcement said. "You have done a great job."
Scores of Sadr's militiamen were seen dropping off their weapons at Sadr's office near the shrine. People were observed pushing wooden carts through the city to collect weapons from militiamen. Many of them changed out of their fighting uniforms, black shirts and trousers, changed into normal clothes and joined the throng of people.
Later in the day, the shrine was emptied and the doors locked.
Despite the activity, it remained unclear how thoroughly the Mahdi Army was complying with the orders to hand in weapons.
Ahmed Shaibani, a Sadr spokesman, pledged that the city would soon be free of militants. He said that members of Sadr's Mahdi Army would return to their homes and that leaders of the movement would go back to the religious schools that they had been attending.
If that happens -- Sadr does not have a good track record when it comes to peace agreements -- it would end a conflict that has claimed hundreds of lives and roiled Iraq's Shiite majority, who have been concerned that using force to resolve the standoff could damage the gold-domed edifice.