IRAQ Peace plan reportedly accepted
The cleric refused to meet with the peace delegation.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has accepted a peace plan drafted by the Iraqi National Conference, which would include laying down arms and withdrawing his militia from a holy shrine in the city of Najaf, a delegate told the conference today.
There was no immediate confirmation from al-Sadr's office.
Al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia has been battling U.S. and Iraqi forces in the holy city of Najaf for nearly two weeks. A previous effort to broker a truce collapsed over the weekend, and al-Sadr, whose forces fought a two-month insurgency in the spring, has made contradictory statements in the past.
On Tuesday, an eight-person delegation from the conference traveled to Najaf to present a peace proposal to al-Sadr. It demanded the cleric's militia disarm, leave the Imam Ali Shrine where it has taken refuge and transform itself into a political party in exchange for amnesty.
Raiding the shrine
Al-Sadr declined to meet the peace delegation, and earlier today Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan said the government could raid the shrine within hours to push out the militants.
He reiterated that U.S. forces would not enter the shrine, which almost certainly would cause an uproar among the country's majority Shiites.
"The only American intervention would be aerial protection and also securing some of the roads that lead to the compound," Shaalan said on Al-Arabiya.
"As for entering the compound, it will be 100 percent Iraqis. Our sons in the National Guard have been trained on the breaking-in operation, which was easy for them."
While never referring to al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia by name, Shaalan referred to those who occupied the shrine as a "gang dressed in the clothes of religion."
This 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 accepted the proposal.
"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," the letter said.
The latest fighting in Najaf, which began Aug. 5 after the breakdown of a two-month cease-fire, is presenting the greatest challenge yet to interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's fledgling government.
The U.S. military says the fighting in Najaf has killed hundreds of militants, though militants deny that. Eight U.S. soldiers and at least 40 Iraqi police have been killed.
Delegates prepared to vote for members of a new National Council, a 100-member body that will serve as a watchdog for the interim government until the January election. As they did, a mortar round hit the roof of Iraq's Foreign Ministry building, causing no damage or injuries, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told The Associated Press.
The blast shook the convention center where the National Conference was being held inside the heavily fortified Green Zone enclave, home to Iraqi government offices and the U.S. Embassy. Zebari said he believed the Green Zone was the target.
The conference, a gathering of more than 1,000 religious, political and civic leaders, was extended a fourth day into today because of disagreements over how to elect the council. Smaller parties were concerned they would not have enough of a voice.
The fighting in Najaf, especially near the shrine, has angered many among the country's majority Shiite population and cast a pall over the conference intended to project an image of amity and inclusiveness on Iraq's road to democracy.
In other developments:
UAlso today, a mortar round slammed into a busy market in the northern city of Mosul, killing at least six civilians and wounding 23, the U.S. military and hospitals said.
U In volatile Anbar Province, a Marine with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was killed in action Tuesday during "security and stability operations," the military reported. In Basra, one British soldier and one militant were reported killed in fighting.
U Several mortar rounds were fired today at the headquarters of the Polish-led multinational force, and seven people were injured, a military spokesman said.
U An Iraqi working for German ZDF television was killed west of the Iraqi capital, the station's chief producer in Baghdad said today. Mahmoud Hamid Abbas, a local producer for the station, was found dead Sunday near Fallujah, chief producer Jorg Christ said.
* Turkey Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said one of two Turkish truck drivers kidnapped over the weekend in Iraq has been rescued and was returning home. Mustafa Koksal was abducted Saturday near Mosul after delivering bottled water to a U.S. base in Baghdad. There was no word on the fate of the other driver.