Wed 18 August, 2004 17:13
By Michael Georgy
NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) - The leader of a Shi'ite uprising in Iraq has agreed to leave a holy shrine encircled by U.S. marines, hours after the interim government threatened to storm it and drive out his fighters.
Raising hopes for a peaceful resolution to the standoff, Iraqi delegates to a conference to choose a national assembly said on Wednesday that the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr had agreed to accept their demands to resolve the crisis.
But even after the announcement, explosions and gun fire echoed through the streets as U.S. forces battled Sadr's Mehdi Army militiamen, whose two-week-old uprising poses the biggest challenge yet to Iraq's interim government.
Sadr's fighters are taking shelter in Najaf's Imam Ali shrine, hoping their opponents will not dare to attack one of the holiest sites for Iraq's majority Shi'ites.
Defence Minister Hazim al-Shaalan had some six hours earlier said an assault was imminent on the golden-domed mosque.
"They have a chance. In the next few hours they have to surrender themselves and their weapons," Shaalan said in the city after meeting local officials.
"We are in the process of completing all our military preparations... We will teach them a lesson they will never forget," he said.
American marines and soldiers have been doing most of the fighting in Najaf, but Shaalan said Iraqi forces had been training to storm the shrine complex and that U.S. forces would not enter the sacred site.
The director of Najaf's main hospital, Falah al-Muhana, said 29 people had been brought in killed or wounded in the clashes on Wednesday, but there were no more precise figures. U.S. casualties are treated at their own bases.
Delegates at the conference in Baghdad read out a letter they said was from Sadr's Baghdad office saying he would agree to their terms, which they had delivered to his aides during a visit to Najaf on Tuesday.
A spokesmen for Sadr confirmed he had accepted the demands laid out by delegates to the conference, without saying explicit ly to which he had agreed.
Apart from Sadr leaving the shrine, the delegates demanded Sadr's men lay down their weapons and the radical cleric and his followers disavow violence and participate in elections set for January.
Sadr's uprising has fuelled clashes in other Shi'ite cities in southern Iraq and divided a national conference in Baghdad intended to advance Iraq's progress towards democracy.
Insurgents fired mortar rounds in Baghdad, with one landing near the conference venue on Wednesday, witnesses said. Two more mortar bombs were fired near the Interior Ministry in Baghdad. No casualties were reported in either attack.
But in the northern city of Mosul, a mortar bomb hit a market, killing five civilians and wounding 21, officials said.
The Baghdad conference was due to announce members of a new council to oversee the interim government later on Wednesday. The meeting was prolonged for a day by disputes over Najaf and wrangling over the makeup of the council.
A delegati on from the conference flew to Najaf on Tuesday to try to broker an end to the fighting, but Sadr refused to meet them, dampening hopes of a quick deal to avert more bloodshed.
The Najaf uprising has exposed the Iraqi government's reliance on U.S. troops, posing interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi with a major dilemma ahead of the elections.
Allawi must be seen to tackle the challenge to his authority, but using heavy-handed tactics near Najaf's shrines could enrage the country's 60-percent Shi'ite majority.
CLASHES IN BAGHDAD
Iraq's health ministry said on Wednesday 21 people had been killed in clashes in Baghdad, Basra, Diwaniya and Najaf and dozens wounded in the past 24 hours. Clashes continued in the Iraqi capital on Wednesday.
Tensions in Najaf have sharpened divisions among the 1,300 delegates meeting in Baghdad to choose 81 members for the new 100-member national assembly. The rest will be made up of members of Iraq's now defunct governing council.
The council will be able to veto legislati on with a two-thirds majority, approve the 2005 budget and appoint a new prime minister or president should either quit or die in office.
Polish troops in the southern town of Hillah came under mortar fire. A polish reporter said a Polish soldier and an American civilian appeared to have been wounded.