NAJAF, Iraq, Aug. 27 -- Militiamen loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr surrendered the sacred shrine of Imam Ali on Friday and then surrendered weapons as well, bringing a largely peaceful end to a ferocious three-week battle with U.S. forces that challenged the authority of Iraq's interim government by holding hostage one of the country's most hallowed places.
"Drop your weapons and leave Najaf and Kufa," a voice on loudspeakers began instructing fighters mid-morning, reading a statement from Sadr. "You have done a great job."
An Iraqi police officer in Najaf inspects the area that Moqtada Sadr's followers used as an illegal religious court. Authorities said the bodies discovered there were those of Iraqi police officers and National Guardsmen.
(Photos Khalid Mohammed -- AP)
A spokesman for Sadr said fighters were withdrawing, but that their militia was not being disbanded.
Obeying terms of a peace agreement that were essentially dictated by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the senior Shiite cleric in Iraq who swept into the holy city Thursday afternoon to negotiate the truce, the tattered fighters of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia stacked weapons at Sadr's office.
The young men later disappeared into the crowd of jubilant worshippers that Sistani had sent marching past the ruins that defined the front line with U.S. forces and through gates of the shrine's blue-and-green tiled walls. The arrangement allowed Sistani to regain control of the shrine and the militiamen to depart discretely.
Within an hour, U.S. tanks and other armored vehicles roared to life and began to fall back from positions surrounding three sides of the mosque. Iraqi commandos, soldiers and police scrambled to take the Americans' place, asserting control in a city center redolent of death.
Many of the decaying bodies were those of militiamen killed at their firing positions in buildings shattered by overwhelming U.S. firepower. In rubble-strewn streets suddenly safe for civilians, residents led ambulances to recover the casualties where they fell.
Iraqi police followed one overpowering stench to a building they said had served as an illegal religious court for Sadr's organization. People as far away as Baghdad who were accused of drinking beer or other activities deemed un-Islamic were said to have been bundled into car trunks and taken to Najaf for trial. Civil authorities had tried to close the court, which at one point indicted a local civil law judge, according to local attorneys.
Authorities said most of the bodies found when police broke down the door Friday afternoon were police officers and members of the Iraqi National Guard. Sadr followers were said to have targeted, tortured and mutilated the victims over a period of months, deeming them American collaborators.
"We had information about this court," said Lt. Col. Mohammed Dayakh Mohammed, chief of the Najaf police's homicide division. He said between 20 and 25 bodies were recovered, including those of a child of 12 or 13 and an elderly woman.
[According to the Associated Press, an official at the court said the bodies were those of people killed during the fighting with U.S. forces.]
Adel Hadi Hasan, the uncle of Najaf's police chief, was one of seven prisoners found alive. Weak, dirty and unshaven, he said he was held for 20 days after being abducted by three Mahdi Army fighters who shot at his car.
"They wanted to do a deal with the chief of police," Hasan said. "There was one who was really mean. He tortured me."
The whereabouts of Sadr, a junior cleric and scion of an esteemed religious family, remained unknown Friday. But under the terms of the peace agreement, Iraq's government agreed not to arrest him, either for directing the militia or on charges he was behind the April 2003 murder of a fellow cleric.