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Ayatollah reaches peace deal with al-Sadr

Italian journalist held hostage slain in Iraq

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's convoy arrives Thursday in Najaf.
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Al-Sistani arrives in Najaf to broker peace.
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Imam Ali Mosque

NAJAF, Iraq (CNN) -- Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has reached an agreement with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani that grants his freedom from murder charges and secures peace in war-torn Najaf, al-Sistani aides said Thursday.

Al-Sistani and al-Sadr held negotiations in a house in Najaf, al-Sistani's deputy said.

Hamid al-Khafaf, an al-Sistani spokesman, said the deal is aimed at ending three weeks of fighting that have ravaged Najaf and nearby Kufa.

As part of the deal, Iraq's government won't press charges against renegade cleric al-Sadr, said Kasim Daoud, Iraq's minister of state for military affairs.

"Muqtada al-Sadr is free to go anywhere he likes. ... He is as free as any Iraqi citizen," Daoud said.

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

Al-Khoei was returning to Iraq from exile in the last days of the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam, and had been expected to urge Iraq's Shiite population to cooperate with the occupation when he was killed by a mob of al-Sadr supporters at the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf.

The mosque has been the center of the last three weeks of combat between Mehdi Army fighters and U.S.-led troops.

Daoud said followers of al-Sadr are expected to leave the mosque before 10 a.m. (2 a.m. ET) Friday.

Al-Khafaf said al-Sistani and al-Sadr agreed on several points:

  • Multinational forces are to leave both cities, 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.
  • Al-Sistani, Iraq's most powerful Shiite Muslim cleric, arrived in Najaf on Thursday after weeks of failed negotiation between Iraq's interim government and al-Sadr.

    Bloodshed has escalated in recent days in the Najaf area and spread to the nearby city of Kufa, where a mortar attack on the main mosque Thursday morning killed 25 people and wounded scores of others.

    Al-Sistani -- returning to Iraq after undergoing a medical procedure in England -- arrived as the Iraqi government and al-Sadr made moves to bring a halt to the three weeks of fighting.

    Iraq's interim prime minister and Najaf's governor had called for a cease-fire.

    U.S. Marines in the area and Iraqi security forces suspended "offensive military operations" to facilitate the peace efforts, Marine Capt. Carrie Batson said.

    U.S. and Iraqi forces have been battling fighters loyal to al-Sadr.

    For weeks, the cleric's Mehdi Army have held control of the Imam Ali Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam.

    Journalist slain

    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)

    "There are no words for an inhumane act that ... cancels centuries of civilization to bring us back to the Dark Ages," Berlusconi said in a statement.

    The Arabic-language network Al-Jazeera reported that a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq executed Enzo Baladoni because the Italian government did not meet its demands to withdraw its troops from Iraq within 48 hours. It was not known when and where the killing occurred.

    Baldoni was married and had two sons. Berlusconi expressed solidarity with Baldoni's family, "especially for those two young lads who with so much love and dignity launched an appeal which turned out, unfortunately, to be useless."

    Other developments

  • Unidentified snipers opened fire on thousands of demonstrators Thursday, killing 23 people, a hospital official said, as they made their way from Kufa to Najaf's Old City. More than 100 people were wounded in the attack, the official said. Kufa is about six miles (10 kilometers) east of Najaf.
  • A mortar attack killed an American soldier Wednesday night in Baghdad, the U.S. military said. The death brings the number of U.S. troops killed in the Iraq war to 971, including 726 killed in hostile action and 245 in "nonhostile" activities, according to the U.S. military.
  • Video by a group calling itself the Secret Islamic Army, Black Banners Brigades was aired Thursday on Arabic-language Al Arabiya television. The video showed seven hostage truck drivers who were kidnapped in Iraq on July 21. The captors promised to release the men -- three Indians, three Kenyans and an Egyptian -- if their employer -- Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Co. -- stops doing business in Iraq. The kidnappers have changed their demands several times since the hostages were captured and have threatened to behead the men.
  • Two Turkish companies began pulling staff and equipment out of Iraq "to save the lives" of two employees held captive by Islamic militants, a state-run news agency reported Thursday. A group calling itself Mujahid Imam Brigades on Wednesday issued a video showing the two electrical workers, identified as Abdullah Ozdemir and Ali Daskin.
  • CNN's Kianne Sadeq in Najaf, and Kevin Flower, Diana Muriel, Cal Perry and John Vause contributed to this report.

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