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At the Ready to Answer Sadr's Call

Allawi's attitude was shared by senior U.S. military commanders and diplomats in Iraq, who were also mindful of Sadr's record of non-compliance.

But the Mahdi Army proved to be a tougher opponent than Iraqi and U.S. officials had anticipated. By holing themselves up in and around the shrine -- one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites -- the militiamen forced U.S. troops to moderate their offensive. When the militiamen wanted to regroup or rest, they could retreat into the safety of the shrine, which was off-limits for U.S. gunners.

A member of Mahdi Army militia acknowledges Shiite pilgrims marching through Najaf toward the Imam Ali shrine. (Ceerwan Aziz -- Reuters)

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The standoff and reports of collateral damage to the shrine -- which U.S. military officials contend was caused by misfired Mahdi Army mortars -- sparked growing anger among Iraq's majority Shiites, forcing Allawi's government to pursue a settlement. Among the government's demands was that all militia weapons be handed over to the police.

But when a delegation of Iraqi leaders affiliated with the government was unable to obtain Sadr's consent, Allawi yielded to an initiative by Sistani. His plan did not include a provision obligating the Mahdi Army to turn in its weapons.

Iraqi and U.S. officials said the settlement nevertheless left Sadr in a much weaker position. Hundreds of his militiamen have been killed and wounded. Moderate Shiite leaders have asserted control over the shrine. And without the sanctuary of the shrine, the senior U.S. official said, if Sadr "steps out of line somewhere else, you can roll over him with a tank."

Even if U.S. forces had been able to kill or capture all the militiamen in Najaf, a senior U.S. official doubted they would have crushed the Mahdi Army. Thousands of fighters from Sadr's stronghold in a Baghdad slum would have joined the militia, he said, "making the problem even worse."

Perhaps mindful of flaws in the deal, the U.S. Embassy here sought to distance itself from the outcome on Friday. Embassy spokesman Robert Callahan praised the government for displaying "patience and restraint throughout," but he emphasized that Iraq's interim leaders were "in charge throughout the standoff."

"The United States provided extensive military and logistical support, but the Iraqi interim government made the decisions," he said.

Special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Najaf contributed to this report.

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