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Al-Sadr Loyalists Start Deal, Give up Dangerous Weapons

By Dexter Filkins and Edward Wong

The New York Times -- BAGHDAD, Iraq

Militiamen loyal to the rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr surrendered hundreds of weapons on Monday, in what appeared to be an encouraging start to a deal struck with the Iraqi government and the American military to end months of fighting in the rundown eastern Baghdad neighborhood known as Sadr City.

On another violent day in which three American soldiers were killed and 14 wounded in two separate incidents, dozens of guerrillas came forward to hand over heavy weapons like mortars, grenade-launchers, machine guns and hundreds of artillery shells.

The group’s surrender of its heavy weapons is the principal element of an agreement struck over the weekend with the interim Iraqi government and American military forces.

In exchange, American commanders agreed to halt military operations against the group, known as the Mahdi Army, and to begin hundreds of millions of dollars worth of reconstruction projects in the impoverished and dilapidated area. The Iraqi government also promised to release any member of the Mahdi Army, among the dozens picked up in sweeps here, who has not been charged with a crime.

By day’s end, an undetermined number of weapons had been turned over, though by the look of the piles of guns and ammunition stacked up, the numbers appeared to reach into the hundreds. Under the agreement, the Iraqi government agreed to pay above-market prices for the weapons: $250 for a mortar, $170 for a grenade launcher and, for a bullet, 25 cents. Still, given the firepower deployed by the militiamen, the total turned in Monday probably represents only a fraction of what the group presumably has stored away. Under the agreement, the Mahdi Army has until Friday to turn over its heavy weapons, after which American commanders said they would assess al-Sadr’s compliance and, if necessary, resume military operations and conduct house-to-house searches.

Al-Sadr, who has been in hiding for weeks, has not spoken publicly about the agreement, although his senior aides say he has endorsed it. In the past, al-Sadr has shown a penchant for making deals amid great fanfare and then failing to follow through.

In addition, because the Mahdi Army itself is less a discrete military organization than a populist movement, it will be difficult to tell whether it has actually disbanded. Col. Robert B. Abrams, the commander of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division, which is overseeing Sadr City, said he intended to examine the militia’s command structure to see if it hangs together after the disarmament.

Still, for all the reservations harbored by the Americans and the Iraqi government, the first day of the weapons surrender suggested a level of cooperation on the part of al-Sadr that has been missing in the past. If the guerrillas did not turn in all of their weapons on Monday, they at least made a start, and there were indications that more weapons were on the way.

“We have decided to give up our weapons, to disband,” said Syed Aziz Abid, a representative of al-Sadr who was dispatched to one of the police stations where the weapons were being turned over. “God willing, there will be no more fighting.”