BAGHDAD, Iraq - Rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr refused yesterday to meet with a delegation of Iraqi politicians dispatched to Najaf to try to end the bloody confrontation between his militia and U.S. forces.
Al-Sadr's aides said it was too dangerous for al-Sadr to leave his secret hideout and meet the delegation, which flew to Najaf aboard two U.S. military helicopters, dodged gunfire and mortars to reach the Imam Ali mosque, then spent three hours waiting for al-Sadr to appear.
The arrival of the eight-member delegation coincided with a sharp escalation of violence around the shrine, and al-Sadr spokesman Qais al-Khazali blamed U.S. forces for scuttling the meeting "because they didn't stop fighting."
But Maj. David Holahan, with the U.S. Marines in Najaf, denied that U.S. forces engaged in offensive operations while the group was at the mosque. "We sat still during the entire time on purpose," he said.
The delegation represented the national conference, which is meeting in Baghdad to elect a transitional parliament. It was headed by a respected Shiite cleric, Hussein al-Sadr, a distant cousin of Muqtada al-Sadr who spent many years in exile in Britain.
Hussein al-Sadr said he was not discouraged by Muqtada al-Sadr's refusal to meet them.
"We had a feeling that the office of Muqtada Sadr is positive" about the delegation's message, he said, after the group was turned away. "The office says Muqtada Sadr doesn't reject what came from the national conference. The message reached Muqtada Sadr."
The group said it was not attempting to negotiate with al-Sadr but would deliver a message endorsed by the conference making three requests: that al-Sadr vacate the shrine, turn his militia into a political party and join the political process.
"This is not a negotiation. This is a friendly mission to convey the message of the national conference," Hussein al-Sadr told reporters as the mission set out.
When the delegation reached the shrine in the evening, after a long detour to avoid gunfire, it was greeted by a crowd of more than 1,000 young men chanting "Long live Muqtada" and beating their chests.
Al-Sadr's aides indicated that the cleric is not staying at the mosque, as had previously been assumed, but at an undisclosed location that he was unable to leave because of the fighting.
Al-Sadr's deputy, Sheik Ali Sumeisim, asked the delegation to request that the U.S. commander withdraw his forces "so that we can bring Sayed Muqtada Sadr safely here."
The group said it was prepared to visit al-Sadr wherever he was, but the aides said that wouldn't be possible.
"It's a secret place. As you know we are in war conditions. U.S. forces are chasing all our steps," Sumeisim said.
Al-Sadr's aides nonetheless seemed to hold open the possibility of a future meeting.
Al-Khazali said al-Sadr welcomed the delegation's mediation and was "ready to negotiate the three points of the message." But, he added, there can be "no peaceful negotiations with the continuous fighting."
Many had seen the mission as a last chance to avert a showdown between al-Sadr's Mahdi Army and the U.S. Marines and Iraqi forces threatening to drive him from the mosque by force.
In Baghdad, the national conference failed to conclude on schedule after the 1,200 delegates were unable to agree on voting procedures for a transitional parliament. The 100-member parliament is to provide some oversight of Ayad Allawi's government before democratic elections in January.
After complaints by independent delegates and smaller parties that the country's main political groups had hijacked the process to appoint their own members, conference organizers decided to extend the session into a fourth day today.
Yesterday's session was shaken by more violence, with at least three mortars crashing nearby. One landed on a busy shopping street about a mile from the closely guarded convention center where the conference was being held, killing seven people and injuring 35.
Another wounded two people just outside the convention center, inside the fortified International Zone that is home to the U.S. Embassy and the offices of the Iraqi government.
Elsewhere, the military said a Marine was killed in action in volatile Anbar province. No further details were given.
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