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Iraqi peace mission in Najaf; US pounds militia
Updated: 2004-08-18 02:02

An Iraqi peace delegation urged a radical Shi'ite cleric to call off his uprising in the city of Najaf Tuesday, where U.S. troops pounded militia positions near the country's holiest Islamic sites.

U.S. Army Bradley armored vehicles advance to the edge of Najaf's old town August 17, 2004. Iraqi political and religious leaders trying to end a radical Shi'ite uprising flew into Najaf on Tuesday, where U.S. troops and militia fought pitched battles near the country's holiest Islamic sites. [Reuters]
Braving U.S. bombardment and militia sniper fire, the group of eight political and religious leaders drove to the office of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, not far from the Imam Ali Mosque where the firebrand and his Mehdi Army have holed up.

It was not immediately clear if they were meeting Sadr.

The delegation flew in on U.S. Black Hawk helicopters from a three-day meeting in Baghdad where 1,300 delegates sought to select an interim national assembly to oversee the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

Heated debates over Najaf and selecting members to the assembly have dominated the unprecedented gathering in Baghdad, a step on Iraq's tortured road to democracy.

The conference, scheduled to end Tuesday, was extended to Wednesday after many delegates opposed a list of 81 candidates presented to the meeting by the pro-U.S. interim government, conference chairman Fouad Massoum said.

The remaining 19 members will come from the Governing Council, a 25-member body appointed by the U.S.-led occupation before the June handover of power.

"If we stay here longer you will not be able to go home," Massoum said, referring to the shaky security situation.

Allawi needs to quell the Shi'ite rebellion that has hit eight central and southern cities and undermined his authority just seven weeks after he took over from U.S.-led occupiers.

U.S. Army snipers take aim at a suspected enemy observer outside the eastern Baghdad's Shi'ite suburb of al-Sadr City August 16, 2004. A shell killed seven people in a busy Baghdad street on Tuesday and U.S. forces fought pitched battles with Shi'ite militia in the holy city of Najaf. [Reuters]

But he is walking a dangerous tightrope, with passions in the majority Shi'ite country at boiling point over U.S. troops fighting near holy sites in Najaf.

In Baghdad, insurgents fired a shell into a busy street, killing at least seven people including two children. The attack wounded 42 people, leaving pools of blood on sidewalks.

Witnesses said British troops battled Shi'ite militiamen in the oil port city of Basra as darkness fell. A British spokesman said he was checking the report.

Leaders at the national conference Monday agreed to send the team to Najaf after Sadr's weekend peace talks with the government collapsed and the cleric vowed to fight to the death.

"This is a friendly mission to convey the message of the national conference," delegation head Sheikh Hussein al-Sadr, a distant relative but political opponent of the cleric, told reporters at a U.S. military camp on the outskirts of Najaf.

They then drove to Sadr's office with a police escort.

"We want to change the Mehdi Army into a political organization and to evacuate the Imam Ali shrine with the promise not to legally pursue those taking shelter there. This is what the government and all Iraqis want."


As the delegation waited at the camp to be driven in civilian cars to the shrine, U.S. troops fired some 20 artillery rounds at militia positions in the city.

U.S. warplanes dropped flares while tanks and armored vehicles fired repeated rounds at gunmen in the city center. The militia responded with rocket-propelled grenades.

A Reuters photographer was wounded in the leg while covering the fighting. The photographer, an Iraqi, was treated for bullet fragment wounds at a U.S. combat hospital and later released.

The delegation earlier put off traveling by road to the southern city after insurgents threatened to ambush them.

Aides to the cleric, who is the icon of Iraq's downtrodden Shi'ite masses, have said he welcomed the idea of sending the team but have not said whether he would meet the mission.

Once appointed, 100-member national council will oversee the interim government until January elections. It will be able to veto legislation with a two-thirds majority, approve the 2005 budget and appoint a new prime minister or president should either quit or die in office.

Broadening their uprising, the Mehdi Army set an oil well on fire in southern Iraq Monday, the government said.

The unrest forced Iraq to keep a main southern oil pipeline shut Tuesday, reducing export flows by almost half.

Clashes also erupted overnight between the militia and U.S. forces in a poor Shi'ite suburb in Baghdad called Sadr City.

The Health Ministry said 14 people had been killed and 122 wounded in Sadr City in the past 24 hours. Witnesses said two teenage girls were among the dead, killed in U.S. shelling of the slum district where Sadr draws much of his support.

The scion of a Shi'ite clerical dynasty, aged about 30 and the most powerful opponent of Washington and the interim government, Sadr has shown little sign of compromise in Najaf.

He has demanded U.S. forces leave Najaf and the government grant an amnesty to his fighters as part of any deal.

Thousands of protesters joined Sadr in the Imam Ali Mosque, promising to act as human shields in the city of 600,000 people some 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad.

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