Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr accepted a peace plan Wednesday that would disarm his militia and remove them from their hideout in a revered shrine, raising hopes of resolving a crisis that has angered many of Iraq's majority Shiites and threatened to undermine the fledgling interim government.
But al-Sadr has made contradictory statements in the past, and aides to the cleric said he still wanted to negotiate details of the deal to end two weeks of fighting between his forces and U.S.-led troops.
Hours later, a militant group said it had kidnapped missing Western journalist Micah Garen and would kill him if U.S. forces did not leave the holy city of Najaf within 48 hours, the pan-Arab broadcast network Al-Jazeera reported.
The agreement for al-Sadr to lay down his arms was announced at the National Conference in Baghdad, which had sent a delegation to negotiate with the radical cleric.
The conference, a gathering of more than 1,000 prominent Iraqis that was seen as an important milestone on the country's path to democracy, spilled into an unscheduled fourth day Wednesday so it could choose members of an interim National Council. The council is to act as a watchdog over the interim government until elections in January.
Disputes persisted at the conference throughout the day over how to choose 81 elected members of the council, with small parties complaining they were being strong-armed by the large factions into accepting their slate of candidates.
A planned vote to affirm a slate of 81 candidates was called off at the last minute, and the conference organizers simply affirmed the group — to the dismay of many of those who were not included in the council. The final 19 members of the 100-member council will be members of the former U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council who were left out of the interim government.
Al-Sadr's loyalists and a combined U.S.-Iraqi force have been fighting for nearly two weeks throughout Najaf, battling in the vast graveyard and in the streets of its Old City. A wall surrounding the Imam Ali Shrine, where the militants have holed up, was reportedly chipped in the fighting, and any damage to the gold-domed mosque itself would infuriate the world's 120 million Shiite Muslims.
The drawn-out fighting, which had spread to other Shiite areas, has already burnished al-Sadr's reputation among poor, grassroots Shiites at the expense of more senior — and more moderate — clerics and hampered the government's efforts to quell a separate Sunni insurgency.
On Wednesday afternoon, Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan said the government could send Iraqi forces to raid the shrine by the end of the day. Prime Minister Ayad Allawi issued a statement accusing the militants of mining the area around the shrine.
Hours later, al-Sadr's office sent a message to the conference, saying he would accept the gathering's peace proposal, which demands his militia drop its arms, withdraw from the shrine and transform itself into a political party in exchange for amnesty.
Sheik Hassan al-Athari, an official at al-Sadr's Baghdad office, said the cleric wanted to negotiate how the plan would be implemented and to ensure his militants would not be arrested. He said al-Sadr had other minor conditions, but did not elaborate.
Al-Sadr aide Ahmed al-Shaibany said U.S. forces must first stop attacking.
"They cannot ask us to disarm while ... they're using warplanes to fight us. There should be a cease-fire first and then they ask us to disarm," he said.
Gunbattles, explosions and other clashes continued to plague Najaf even after the agreement was announced Wednesday. The fighting in Najaf killed eight people and wounded 27 others Wednesday, Hussein Hadi of Najaf General Hospital said.
The U.S. military says the clashes have killed hundreds of militants, though the militants deny that. Eight U.S. soldiers and at least 40 Iraqi police have been killed as well.
Also Wednesday, one U.S. soldier was shot and killed during an attack on troops patrolling Baghdad, the military said. As of Tuesday, 943 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003, according to the U.S. Defense Department.
Near Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, seven coalition soldiers were wounded during a mortar attack on their camp, the military said. They included two Polish soldiers and five civilians — one American, one Pole and three Iraqis.
At the Abu Ghraib prison, which was the center of a scandal over allegations that American prison guards abused Iraqi detainees, U.S. military police shot and killed two of detainees and wounded five others during a massive brawl Wednesday, the military said.
Several detainees attacked an inmate with rocks and tent poles in a fight that soon encompassed 200 people, said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, the U.S. military's spokesman for detention operations in Iraq. The military decided to use lethal force because one detainee risked being killed by fellow inmates, he said. Abu Ghraib is west of Baghdad.
In the northern city of Mosul, a mortar round slammed into a busy market Wednesday, killing five civilians and wounding 21, the U.S. military said.
Ongoing fighting between U.S. forces and al-Sadr's militants in the Baghdad slum of Sadr City killed four Iraqis and wounded 24 others, Health Ministry officials said.
The conference was considered a top target for insurgents, and a mortar round hit the roof of the nearby Foreign Ministry building Wednesday, causing no damage or injuries. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said he believed the mortar was aimed at the fortified enclave where the conference was held.
The Najaf crisis dominated the gathering from the start. In an effort to resolve it, the conference sent a peace delegation to Najaf on Tuesday.
Al-Sadr refused to meet with the group; his aides said the fighting made it too dangerous.
Many delegates said Wednesday they were fed up with al-Sadr, and later in the day, Shaalan said the government could raid the shrine within hours.
Now that the peace talks have not worked, "we have to turn to what's stronger and greater in order to teach them a lesson that they won't forget, and to teach others a lesson as well," Shaalan said.
"Today is a day to set this compound free from its imprisonment and its vile occupation," Shaalan said.
Shaalan said Iraqi forces were fully trained to oust militants from the shrine, and U.S. forces would not enter the compound.
State Minister Qassim Dawoud said a government raid on the shrine would "be a civilized lesson for those in Fallujah, Samarra, Mosul, Yusufiyah or Basra. There is no lenience ... with those people."
By Wednesday evening, however, Safiya al-Suhail, an independent Shiite delegate at the conference, said she had received a letter from al-Sadr's Baghdad office saying he was agreeing to the conference's peace plan.
"Muqtada al-Sadr has agreed on the conditions set by the National Conference," she said, reading the letter to the conference.
"We call on the Iraqi government and the National Conference to participate in implementing what is proposed by Muqtada al-Sadr, otherwise everybody will bear the responsibility," she read.