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Peace Deal Ends 3 Weeks of Fighting in Najaf

The senior government official said a date has not been set for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Najaf. "It is contingent upon Najaf becoming a safe place, free of militants," the official said. "If the standoff is resolved and the militants leave Najaf, then the presence of foreign forces in Najaf will not be necessary."

U.S. commanders in the city said Thursday night that they had not received orders to withdraw.

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_____
Moqtada al Sadr Who Is Sadr? More on the Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army has been fighting U.S. and Iraqi troops.
_____Najaf Maps_____
Details of Holy City: Maps show area in old city around the shrine of Imam Ali.

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The peace deal was forged after one of the most violent and chaotic days in the three-week confrontation.

On Thursday morning, before Sistani's return to Najaf, three mortar shells slammed into the grounds of the main mosque in Kufa, killing at least 27 people and wounding 63. The marble courtyard was covered with pools of blood and torn clothing as survivors frantically dragged the wounded to a makeshift first-aid station. Overwhelmed ambulance drivers ferried the wounded to the overflowing local hospital, where relatives wailed next to gurneys carrying bloodied young men.

People at the mosque blamed the U.S. military for the attack, but U.S. military officials denied responsibility. A military spokesman said no operations were being conducted near the shrine.

A short while later, unidentified gunmen fired into a group walking on the main road from Kufa to Najaf. At least 15 people were killed, according to hospital officials.

The shooting caused the marchers to disperse as they sought cover. When a small contingent reassembled, they began shouting: "Where are the religious leaders? Where is the government? They let the Iraqis kill each other."

After Sistani's arrival, there was a shooting in Najaf, as hundreds of his supporters, as well as many Sadr loyalists, tried to converge on the house where Sistani had decamped. Police officials said gunmen in the crowd began firing, prompting the police to return fire. At least 10 people were killed and 38 wounded, hospital officials said.

At Najaf's hospital, an employee told the Reuters news agency: "Go look at the morgue. It's full."

Iraq's Health Ministry put the death toll for the day at 74, with 315 wounded, but that count included militiamen killed in clashes with security forces.

The fighting in Najaf also claimed the life of a U.S. Marine on Thursday, the second to be killed in two days, bringing to 11 the number of American military personnel lost in Najaf since the conflict began on Aug. 5.

Meanwhile, militants who kidnapped two relatives of Iraqi Defense Minister Hazim Shalaan have released one of them, al-Jazeera television reported Friday, according to Reuters.

Al-Jazeera said the group calling itself the "Brigades of God's Anger" freed Salah Hassan Zeidan Lamie, a relative of Shalaan by marriage, after Iraqi police met its demand to release Ali Smeisim, an aide to rebel Shi'ite cleric Moqtada Sadr.

There was no word on the other kidnapped man -- a blood relative of Shalaan -- captured by the group.

Special correspondent Naseer Nouri contributed to this report from Najaf.

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