BAGHDAD, Iraq—A national political conference's bid to end the fighting in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Najaf appeared to have failed Tuesday, as a delegation returned to Baghdad early Wednesday without having met with rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Aides to al-Sadr blamed his absence on fierce battles that raged between American forces and his Mahdi Army militia near the revered Imam Ali shrine even as the eight-member peace delegation arrived in Najaf aboard two U.S. helicopters. But al-Sadr's aides declined to characterize the mission as a failure.
"This is a good step," said Qais al Khazali, an al-Sadr spokesman. "We gave our agreements in principle, but there are no peaceful negotiations with the continuous fighting."
Heavy fighting continued late into the night after a day that included gunfire, mortar barrages and a U.S. airstrike on the huge cemetery adjacent to the shrine. Maj. David Holahan, executive officer of the 1st battalion, 4th Marine regiment, denied that U.S. forces engaged in offensive operations during the peace delegation's visit.
"We sat still during the entire time on purpose," he said.
The head of the peace delegation, Hussein al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric who's a distant relative of the rebel cleric, sought to cast the outcome in a positive light. "The office (of al-Sadr) says that Muqtada al-Sadr doesn't reject what came from the national conference. We hope there will be better circumstances to meet with him."
It wasn't clear whether further meetings would be scheduled, however.
The national conference's attempt to broker peace in Najaf underscores how the standoff has come to dominate Iraqi politics. Once considered an upstart with little popular support, al-Sadr—and his fate—now is the focus of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and of the politicians and leaders participating in the U.N.-sanctioned plan to guide Iraq to free elections by January.
The conference was scheduled to select members of an interim legislature, but delegates launched their peace initiative barely an hour after it began Sunday, asking Allawi to impose an immediate nationwide cease-fire. When he refused, they decided to send a delegation to Najaf, with the goal of beseeching al-Sadr to disband the Mahdi Army, join in the political process and withdraw from Najaf's holy sites under the protection of a government amnesty offer.
It was no easy task getting the delegation to Najaf. At first, more than 60 delegates signed up to go. But many balked at the U.S. military's request to submit their names and license-plate numbers so American and Iraqi officers manning checkpoints along the way could wave them through without delay.
Finally, an eight-member delegation boarded a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter with a group of journalists and flew to Najaf, arriving at about 4 p.m. Tuesday.
"It doesn't look good, does it, the delegation going to Najaf under American protection?" said Hameed al Kifaey, a spokesman for Iraq's ministerial council.
In Najaf, the delegation encountered gunfire after leaving a U.S. military base and detoured to Kufa to pick up a Mahdi Army escort. After driving close to the shrine, the delegation set out on foot through a labyrinth of alleys to reach its destination around 7 p.m.
A chaotic scene greeted them inside the shrine. More than 1,000 young men were gathered, beating their chests, raising their fists and shouting "Long live Muqtada," according to a reporter who traveled with the delegation.
Delegates could hear exchanges of small-arms fire as well as volleys from a 25 mm cannon mounted on U.S. armored vehicles and the explosion of rocket-propelled grenades fired by the Mahdi Army. The Mahdi Army also fired perhaps a dozen mortar rounds from very close to the shrine. U.S. forces had been firing 155 mm artillery rounds into the nearby cemetery, but stopped when the delegation arrived.
Meanwhile, discussion of the standoff all but sidelined the conference's work on its key goal: electing 81 delegates to a 100-member interim national assembly. Former members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, which helped run the country until the June 28 restoration of sovereignty, will fill the other 19 seats.
The conference, which was to have ended Tuesday, was extended to a fourth day to await the delegation's return. Resentment ran deep among many delegates over how al-Sadr had dominated the first platform for Iraqi democracy.
"We don't need this," said Songhul Chapouk, a Turkmen representative and former Governing Council member. "If he wants to be with us, he can share in what we're doing. Why can't he believe we're doing this for the good of the country?"
Even without concerns about al-Sadr, the conference was filled with political clashes and behind-the-scenes politicking.
Minority parties and independent delegates joined to block any effort to dominate the assembly by major parties, including Kurdish and Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups. Shiites fought among themselves over whether the inclusion of moderate and secular Shiites would count toward the Shiite majority that religious conservatives demand, a split eventually decided in favor of the moderates.
Nevertheless, delegates said the conference was a good first step toward democracy.
"We're not England or the United States or France," said Sadeq al Musawi, a delegate from the Constitutional Monarchy party. "We are Iraq, and at least this is all Iraqi."
(Hannah reports for the Contra Costa Times. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Hannah Allam in Baghdad contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ