- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq — An Iraqi delegation delivered a peace proposal to aides of militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf today as explosions, gunfire and a U.S. air strike on the sprawling cemetery echoed across the holy city.

The delegation was kept waiting for three hours at the Imam Ali shrine, where some of al-Sadr’s fighters have holed up, but were not allowed to meet with the cleric and left Najaf after talking with his aides.

Al-Sadr did not show up because of the “heavy shelling from the planes and tanks of the U.S. forces,” said an aide, Ahmed al-Shaibany.

Both the mediators and Al-Sadr’s deputies described their talks as positive. Al-Shaibany said the delegation would return tomorrow to meet with al-Sadr himself, but there was no immediate confirmation from the delegation.

The peace mission was organized by the Iraqi National Conference, a gathering of more than 1,000 religious, political and civic leaders that was extended late today into a fourth day because of disagreements over how to elect a council that is to act as a watchdog over the interim government until elections in January.

The delegation’s peace initiative demanded that al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia disarm, leave the Imam Ali shrine and become a political group in exchange for amnesty.

“This is not a negotiation. This is a friendly mission to convey the message of the National Conference,” said delegation head Hussein al-Sadr, a distant relative of the renegade Shiite Muslim cleric.

Al-Sadr aides said they welcomed the mission, but not the peace proposal.

“The demands of the committee are impossible. The shrine compound must be in the hands of the religious authorities. They are asking us to leave Najaf while we are the sons of Najaf,” said one aide, Sheik Ali Smeisim.

The delegation, which had planned to be in Najaf only for a day, flew back to Baghdad to return to the National Conference.

The fighting in Najaf, especially near the revered Imam Ali shrine, where al-Sadr’s militants are holed up, has angered many among the country’s majority Shiite population and cast a pall over the conference, which had been intended to project an image of amity and inclusiveness on the road to democracy.

The meeting is being held under tight security and two nearby explosions rattled the meeting hall Tuesday, slightly wounding a soldier and a civilian security guard, the military said.

Several miles away, a mortar round slammed into a busy Baghdad commercial district, killing seven people and wounding 47, officials said. The blast charred cars and shattered the front of a barbershop on al-Rasheed street, leaving blood mixed with glass and metal shards on the road.

The mortar shell was not aimed at the conference but rather was a routine attack intended “to create chaos in the country,” said Sabah Kadhim, a spokesman for the Iraq’s Interior Ministry.

Clashes persisted even after the National Conference’s eight-member peace delegation - seven of them Shiites - arrived aboard a pair of U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters.

Explosions and gunfire shook the streets throughout the day and U.S. troops entered the flash-point Old City neighborhood, where al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army is based.

A U.S. warplane caused an explosion in the huge cemetery, site of many clashes between U.S. forces and Shiite militants. U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Thomas V. Johnson said the plane fired “one precision guided missile on a building in the cemetery where Muqtada militiamen with RPGs were attacking U.S. soldiers.”

The U.S. military says the fighting in Najaf has killed hundreds of militants, though the militants deny that. Eight U.S. soldiers and at least 40 Iraqi police have been killed as well.

The fighting today killed three civilians and wounded 15, rescue worker Sadiq al-Shaibany said. Two of those were killed when gunfire hit the office of the Badr Brigades, the militant wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite political group that is not involved in the fighting, said Ridha Taqi, an official of the group.

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