Najaf Fighting Intensifies Amid Peace Push

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A U.S. warplane bombed near Najaf's vast cemetery as fighting with Shiite militants intensified Tuesday. An Iraqi delegation brought a peace proposal aimed at ending the standoff in the holy city, which has marred a Baghdad conference meant to be a landmark step toward democracy.

Later Tuesday, that conference was extended by one day to Wednesday, the organizer said. Conference chair Fuad Masoum gave no reason for the extension. The gathering began Sunday.

Violence in the capital also rattled the National Conference. A mortar round exploded on a central Baghdad street several miles away, killing seven people and wounding wounding 35, according to the Health Ministry. Two other explosions, closer by, shook the conference center itself, slightly injuring at least two people.

Explosions and gunfire were heard in the streets of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, throughout the day and U.S. troops entered the flashpoint Old City neighborhood, the stronghold of fighters loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

At least one plane dropped bombs in the area of the cemetery, where al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia has been battling U.S. forces. It was not clear if the strike hit inside or near the sprawling necropolis.

The clashes Tuesday killed three people and wound 15 others, all of them civilians, according to rescue worker Sadiq al-Shaibany.

Two of the casualties were killed when gunfire hit the office of the Badr Brigades, the militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is not involved in the fighting, according to Ridha Taqi, a SCIRI official.

The airstrike came only hours after an eight-member delegation from Iraq's National Conference arrived in the holy city, brought in on U.S. military helicopters.

Their peace proposal offers amnesty and a place in the political process for al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militiamen if they put down their arms and leave Najaf's holy sites, including the Imam Ali Shrine, where fighters have taken refuge.

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 al-Sadr aide, Sheik Ali Smeisim.

The Najaf fighting has overshadowed the National Conference, which was supposed to be a revolutionary moment in Iraq's democratic transformation, an unprecedented gathering of 1,300 Iraqis from all ethnic and religious groups for vigorous debate over their country's course.

But members of the conference decided to delay the gathering's main function - electing a form of national assembly - to give time for a peace mission to Najaf.

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

The peace mission was plagued by embarrassing holdups. A large delegation of 60 conference members had intended to go in a convoy on Tuesday to Najaf, 100 miles south of Bagdad. That trip was canceled when a security escort could not be arranged, and insted the smaller team went.

Tuesday's mortar attack on the busy, central Rasheed Street was the second such deadly attack since the conference began Sunday.

The explosion set a building on fire and smashed the front of a barbershop. Blood mixed with shards of glass on the street as firefighters were hosing charred cars.

Also, two blasts shook the convention center where the conference in being held in Baghdad's heavily barricaded Green Zone. A soldier and a civilian security guard were slightly injured, the military said.

Al-Sadr aide Ali al-Yassiry, who was at the conference to talk to U.N. officials about the Najaf violence, said he also was slightly injured in the blast.

The interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi came into office in June facing a persistent 16-month-old insurgency led by Sunni Muslims in Baghdad and to the north and west. The eruption of violence in the south with al-Sadr's militiamen since Aug. 5 has only added to his problems.

If al-Sadr agrees to stand down, the conference will have succeeded in turning a crisis into a startling, symbolic victory showing the potential power of communal solutions in post-Saddam Iraq.

If the cleric rejects the peace deal, the conflict will have distracted attention from other pressing issues and damage conference organizers' efforts to project an optimistic image of national unity.

The Najaf violence "has really affected progress" at the National Conference, said one delegate, Ahmad al-Hayali.

The conference was to vote Tuesday on members of a national council that will serve as a watchdog over the interim government before elections expected in January. But delegates decided not to hold the vote until the peace mission returned from Najaf.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also has offered to play "a facilitating role" to help end the Najaf violence if all sides agree, U.N. Spokesman Fred Eckhard said Monday.

He said the decision came after Annan spoke to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Iran's Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, and the new U.N. Iraq envoy Ashraf Jehangir Qazi.

On Monday, Najaf's police chief, Maj. Gen. Ghalib al-Jazaari, said members of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia broke into his family's house in Basra, beat up his sisters and kidnapped his handicapped, 80-year-old father.

Iraq is scheduled to hold January elections to choose a transitional government. That government will convene a national convention to draft a constitution for consideration by voters in October 2005. A vote for a constitutionally based government will follow two months later.