Iraqis attending a national political conference agreed Monday to dispatch a delegation to the embattled city of Najaf to persuade rebellious Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr to disband his militia, vacate a religious shrine and participate in the country's political process.
The initiative was described by political leaders as a final attempt to forge a deal with Sadr that would flush his militia out of the gold-domed Imam Ali shrine without the use of force. The delegation of more than 60 people was scheduled to leave Baghdad early Tuesday morning. An aide to Sadr said the delegation would be welcomed in Najaf, but he refused to say whether the cleric would meet with the group or accept the terms.
In Najaf, scattered fighting continued for a second day after a pause to accommodate the previous attempt to negotiate a settlement. U.S. Marines reinforced Army patrols in a vast cemetery where two soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division were killed Sunday, while armored patrols pushed closer to the shrine to raid what commanders called militia gathering points. U.S. forces also used artillery to pound suspected militia positions in the cemetery.
The political conference, which has been attended by more than 1,100 Iraqis, had been convened to select an interim national assembly. But that task has been subordinated by an overwhelming desire among the participants to find a solution to the standoff in Najaf.
After issuing a manifesto on Sunday calling for the interim prime minister to refrain from offensive military operations against Sadr and his militia, the conference on Monday denounced Sadr's use of shrines as a refuge for his militia and condemned the very existence of armed militias in the new Iraq.
"The presence of an armed militia means there is a state within a state, and this won't work," said a statement of principles approved by the conference on Monday. The statement, which delegates approved with a standing ovation, called on Sadr to leave the shrine -- noting that it is "not the personal property of anyone" -- and urged him to transform his militia into a nonviolent political organization.
Clerics and representatives of the interim government have tried without success to mediate the Najaf standoff, but they did not wield the same clout as a request from more than 1,000 Iraqis, many of them Shiites who sympathize with Sadr but object to his violent methods.
Many delegates, however, remained skeptical that the mercurial Sadr, who has dismissed the conference as illegitimate, would accept their proposal. Even if he did, they questioned whether he would follow through, noting that he had repeatedly reneged on previous agreements.
Despite the efforts in Baghdad to broker a deal, Sadr's supporters spent the day preparing for a showdown. News services reported that thousands of Sadr loyalists from southern Iraq have converged on the shrine in Najaf, promising to act as human shields in the event of a military assault.
In Baghdad, fighting erupted between U.S. soldiers and Sadr's militia in the Shiite slum of Sadr City, where militants detonated a bomb under a tank and then set the vehicle on fire. The tank's crew escaped with minor wounds, and a helicopter gunship later strafed the street where the tank was hit, while militiamen responded with rocket-propelled grenades and assault-rifle fire. Sadr City residents reached by telephone said heavy fighting resumed in the area Monday evening after a U.S. military vehicle was attacked with a roadside bomb.
In the southern city of Nasiriyah, local officials said a journalist with dual U.S.-French citizenship and his interpreter were kidnapped in a market on Friday, the Associated Press reported. The journalist, identified as Micah Garen, was working on a documentary project.
Although U.S. and Iraqi forces have pursued Sadr's militia in various parts of Najaf, they have refrained from entering the Imam Ali shrine. Iraqi government officials have said any assault on the shrine would be conducted by Iraqi security forces, but they have insisted that such an order would be issued only if Sadr and his militia, called the Mahdi Army, refused to budge.
Hussein Mohammed Hadi Sadr, an elderly Shiite cleric and distant relative of Moqtada Sadr, read to the conference a communique that offers the outlaw cleric and his followers amnesty if they leave the shrine and lay down their weapons. Calling mediation a "holy mission," the document urged Sadr to "respond to the urgent national request to change the Mahdi Army into a legitimate political entity . . . and to give the holy shrine of Najaf to the Iraqi people with the assurance of non-judicial pursuit of all those who withdraw from there."
The communique also invited Sadr "to participate in the political process of Iraq."
"We hope that he will accept" the terms, said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih. "This country has seen so much violence, so much bitterness. It's time that we seek a way out."
But if Sadr fails to comply, Salih said, the shrine "must be vacated of militants" with military force.
"That situation cannot be allowed to continue," he said.
Any recalcitrance by Sadr, many delegates say, could strengthen the hand of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi if he chooses to authorize the use of force. Sameer Shaker Sumaidaie, a Sunni Muslim who served as interior minister and as a member of the U.S.-appointed Governing Council during the occupation, said the conference's communique gives Sadr a "clear choice."
"He has to say yes or no," Sumaidaie said. "If he does not say yes and he says no, then the government to a large extent will be absolved" if it has to use force.
Ahmed Shyaa Barak, a human rights lawyer and former Governing Council member, called the effort to negotiate with Sadr "a golden opportunity."
"We have good suggestions and a good delegation," he said. "I think they will be able to encourage him to agree."
Hussein Sadr, the cleric who drafted the communique, was far less optimistic. Asked whether he thought the younger Sadr would accept the demands, he shrugged. "We must try," he said.
After the participants approved the communique, one delegate stormed out of the hall in protest, growling that overnight clashes in Najaf suggested the government had not upheld its pledge to refrain from attacks on the shrine until negotiations had been exhausted.
"By besieging Najaf, is that a response to the representatives of the people at this conference?" said Falah Hassan Shanshel, a member of the Shiite Political Council. "I decide to withdraw from this conference and I wish to congratulate the others for contributing to the slaughter."
Even if Sadr agreed to disband his militia, the process of disarming and demobilizing its members would likely be long and complicated. U.S. officials say that many, if not most, members of the Mahdi Army are young men who joined not out of religious fervor but because the militia offered them a job and a chance to vent their anger at the U.S. occupation.
Jamal Benomar, the senior U.N. political adviser to the conference, said demobilization would require financial incentives, job-training programs and other measures the government has not implemented. Without such compensation, there would be little to dissuade the militiamen from regrouping.
"We learned the hard way at the U.N. from experiences in various other conflicts that peace agreements involving militia groups will require both political and rehabilitation measures," Benomar said. "The demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of armed combatants is a big challenge that requires planning, proper design, significant resources and monitoring. It doesn't happen overnight."
Conference organizers had wanted to send the delegation to Najaf on Monday afternoon. They requested a fleet of cars and a team of private security guards. (Iraqi policemen refused to accompany the delegates because they judged the trip too dangerous.) But after four hours passed -- and a down payment had been made -- there were no drivers or guards to be seen. At 7 p.m., the organizers chose to delay the mission until Tuesday morning.
Correspondent Karl Vick in Najaf and staff writer Jackie Spinner in Baghdad contributed to this report.