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Iraqi leaders seek to end Najaf conflict through diplomacy

BAGHDAD, Iraq—With U.S. and Iraqi troops poised for a decisive assault on the militia of rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a conference that had assembled to pick an interim legislature agreed Monday to dispatch a delegation to the conflicted city of Najaf in a last-ditch effort to persuade al-Sadr to end his fight.

The decision to make the urgent appeal came on a day of continued fighting between al-Sadr's forces and American troops as U.S. tanks edged closer to the Imam Ali shrine, where al-Sadr's militiamen have taken refuge.

Details of the fighting were sketchy—many independent journalists have left Najaf under government orders—but the American military announced that two soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division were killed Sunday in Najaf and a third soldier died in Anbar province, the center of the country's Sunni Muslim insurgency.

At least 934 U.S. service members have died since military operations in Iraq began in March 2003.

The decision to send the peace mission to Najaf as early as Tuesday underscores the frustration that delegates to the conference have expressed over the fighting in one of Shiite Islam's holiest sites. The conference of 1,100 Iraqis convened to select members of an interim national assembly—a key step toward self-rule—but has been dominated by discussion of the fighting in Najaf since it began Sunday.

Sunday, conference delegates demanded that interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his administration impose an immediate nationwide cease-fire, but clashes continued Monday throughout Iraq.

Interim Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh welcomed the delegates' peace initiative.

"We hope that he (al-Sadr) will accept it," Saleh said. "This country has seen so much violence. It's time that we work a way out."

Saleh reiterated the interim government's hard-line position, however, that one way or another it intends to eliminate militias such as al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. "That situation cannot be allowed to continue," he said.

The delegates' peace plan calls for al-Sadr's militia to withdraw from the shrine, turning it over to Iraqi government and religious authorities. It also calls for al-Sadr to participate in the political process, which he largely has shunned, and to transform the Mahdi Army into a political entity.

"The presence of armed militias, in the eyes of the law and in the conventions of the civilized countries, is wrong," Shiite Muslim cleric Sheik Hussein al-Sadr, a distant relative of Muqtada al-Sadr, told fellow delegates Monday.

He also said it was wrong for any single person—"no matter how important"—to control the Imam Ali shrine. "The religious shrines are not the personal property of anyone. They are holy places open to everyone," he said.

Sheik Qais al Khalazee, an al-Sadr spokesman in Baghdad, said the proposal would be considered and that the delegation was welcome in Najaf.

"We're welcoming any attempt from any side to solve this problem peacefully," al Khalazee said. "Any person who wants to go to Najaf with a reasonable and fair solution without any American influence, he'll be very welcomed."

Al-Sadr has demanded that U.S. forces leave Najaf and has shown little inclination to negotiate.

In a recent televised speech from inside the shrine, al-Sadr vowed to fight to the death and urged his militia to do likewise. On Friday, his followers turned out by the thousands in Baghdad and other cities to protest the fighting in Najaf and elsewhere.

Monday, another al-Sadr representative, Sheik Ahmed al Shebanee, told the Arab satellite television channel al Jazeera that there was no plan to disband the Mahdi Army. "We couldn't imagine dissolving this army, because it's not an organized militia or a group," he said. "So it can't be dissolved."

Nevertheless, conference delegate Ahmad al Barak, who served on the governing council that helped run Iraq until sovereignty was restored June 28 and is a member of a Shiite political group, said al-Sadr, facing overwhelming U.S. and Iraqi force, might be inclined to accept the latest peace offering.

"The political and the military situation on the ground is changing not day-by-day but by the hour," al Barak said.

The proposal also might be attractive because it doesn't come from the interim government, though al-Sadr has scorned the national conference, he said.

"He is in a corner now," al Barak said. "I think he's now in a good position to accept" the delegation's offer.

The enthusiastic but hastily constituted delegation, approved around noon Monday, initially had planned to travel to Najaf that very afternoon or early evening, said delegation leader Fawsi Hamsa of Baghdad, who is to deliver the delegation's written proposal to al-Sadr.

The trip was postponed, however, when vehicles hired for the journey didn't arrive after several hours. The late departure would have meant making the two-and-a-half-hour trip to Najaf mostly in the dark on roads known for ambushes.

Iraqi police, themselves often targeted by insurgents, weren't expected to provide security for the delegation beyond Baghdad. Instead, private security guards were hired.

Journeying to Najaf on Tuesday means the delegates might miss important votes on the national conference's last day, when delegates are to elect people from their ranks to constitute the 100-member interim assembly.

The vote is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. The Najaf delegation conceivably could return in time to participate, but missing the vote is a price worth paying, said Hamsa.

"It's important that we have to stop the bloodshed," Hamsa said.

The assembly, part of the U.N.-sanctioned plan to establish a democratic Iraq, will be mostly an advisory body that serves until parliamentary elections slated for no later than Jan. 31.

It will be able to veto executive orders from the interim prime minister if it can muster a two-thirds majority, and will have approval authority over the nation's 2005 budget.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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