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Al-Sadr militia swaps prisoners with Iraq

110 reported killed in Najaf, Kufa in 24 hours

Shiites march toward the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf on Friday.
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Agreement ends standoff in Najaf.
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Imam Ali Mosque

NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- The Mehdi Army and Iraqi security forces started exchanging prisoners late Friday, according to an Iraqi police source.

The Al-Arabiya network also reported the exchange is under way one day after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr brokered a peace deal in the Najaf region.

Al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia and U.S. and Iraqi forces had been fighting around the Imam Ali Mosque for three weeks.

Earlier Friday, Iraqi police were securing Najaf's Old City and the mosque as al-Sadr and al-Sistani representatives worked to transfer control of the mosque compound from al-Sadr's militia to the Marjiya, the Shiite religious authority.

A senior al-Sadr representative said most Medhi Army members had turned in their weapons.

Kasim Daoud, Minister of State for Military Affairs, said a council has been set up to reconstruct Najaf and repair damage in nearby Kufa.

Residents who fled the fighting returned to their homes as crews started a huge cleanup operation at the Imam Ali Mosque, the holy Shiite site where hundreds of Mehdi militia members took refuge.

The mosque has been locked and the crowds of people who had gathered there have left the shrine compound.

Ahead of a 10 a.m. (2 a.m. EDT) deadline for the Mehdi Army fighters to vacate the mosque, al-Sadr called on them to hand over their weapons before leaving.

"Do this so they won't condemn you and they won't condemn me," the speaker said, reading a letter from al-Sadr over the mosque's sound system.

A Marine spokeswoman said U.S. forces will stay in their "current positions until further notice" and "will continue to monitor activities in the city of Najaf to ensure compliance with the terms of the agreement."

"We are extremely pleased that this conflict has been solved peacefully," said Capt. Carrie Batson, who also noted "the work done by all parties, resulting in the agreement to return control of Najaf to proper Iraqi civil and clerical authorities."

The Iraqi Health Ministry said that fighting in Najaf and Kufa killed 110 people and wounded 501 in a 24-hour period that began Thursday morning.

Many of the victims were killed Thursday in a mortar strike on the Kufa mosque, where the peace demonstrators gathered, and in gunfire aimed at marchers heading from Kufa to Najaf.

Elsewhere in the country, 18 people were killed during that time period, three in Hilla, eight in Diwaniya, and seven in Baghdad, the Health Ministry said. Scores were wounded.

A witness said a U.S. tank shelled targets along the volatile Haifa Street in central Baghdad, a dangerous stretch that has earned the nickname "Little Falluja."

Small arms fire and explosions were heard in the morning hours, and 12 U.S. troops were wounded in hand-grenade attacks. Eight people have been detained.

Under the peace agreement, the Iraqi interim government won't press murder charges that were lodged earlier this year against al-Sadr, Daoud said.

Mehdi militia members will be treated as a political group as long as they disarm.

Al-Sadr was wanted by Iraqi authorities in connection with the killing of rival cleric Majeed Al-Khoei in April 2003.

Al-Sadr spokesman Sheikh Ahmed al-Sheibani on Friday said a critical point had been made in the three-week standoff -- to prove to the United States and the interim Iraqi government that religious authority is the primary power in Iraq.

Hamid al-Khafaf, an al-Sistani spokesman, said the cleric and al-Sadr agreed on several points:

  • Multinational forces are to leave both Najaf and Kufa, leaving security to local forces.
  • Najaf and Kufa are to be weapons-free cities.
  • Compensation is to be paid to victims of the violence.
  • Legitimate elections will be held.
  • Other developments

  • An Italian journalist held hostage in Iraq has been killed, the Italian government confirmed Thursday, and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi quickly condemned the execution while his government vowed to stay active in the war against terrorism. (Full story)
  • Insurgents released the brother-in-law of Iraqi Defense Minister, Hazem Sha'alan, who was abducted this week, Al-Jazeera reported Friday. A group calling itself the Godly Rage Brigades said it has released Gen. Salah Hassan Zeidan because a sheikh arrested by police in Najaf has been freed. The group is believed to be holding at least one other hostage.
  • A car bomb exploded Friday morning near a U.S. Army convoy in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, wounding at least 12 Iraqi civilians and one U.S. soldier, police and hospital officials said.
  • A U.S. soldier was killed and another injured Friday when their truck rolled off an embankment near Falluja, west of Baghdad, the Coalition Press Information Center said. The accident is under investigation. The death brings the number of U.S. troops killed in the Iraq war to 972, including 726 killed in hostile action and 246 in "nonhostile" activities, according to the U.S. military.
  • CNN's Kianne Sadeq in Najaf, and Kevin Flower, Diana Muriel, Cal Perry and John Vause contributed to this report.

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