United States tanks rolled into the Old City of Najaf toward a holy Shi’ite shrine where militants were hiding on Monday as participants at a national conference voted to send a delegation to Najaf to try to negotiate an end to the fighting.
The city, which had been quiet early on Monday, was hit by a series of explosions in the late morning that shook the vast cemetery, the scene of many battles between militants and US forces. Witnesses also reported US tanks had moved to within 500m of the revered Imam Ali Shrine.
“We are proceeding with our operations. We are moving forward and we captured some positions inside the Old City from the south during the night and this morning,” police chief Brigadier Ghalib al-Jazaari said.
The fighting has cast a pall over the national conference in Baghdad, an unprecedented gathering of 1 300 religious, tribal and political leaders from across Iraq that started on Sunday — meant to be a key first step toward democracy.
Some of the delegates threatened to walk out unless the crisis is resolved. On Monday, the conference voted to send a delegation to Najaf to ask radical Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to tell his followers to drop their weapons and join the country’s political process.
“The door is very open to all Iraqis, regardless of their religion, ethnic background, to join the free political process,” Shi’ite cleric Hussein al-Sadr, a distant relative of Moqtada al-Sadr, told the conference.
Moqtada al-Sadr’s aides said they support efforts to end the violence.
“We are ready to accept any mediation for a peaceful solution,” al-Sadr aide Ahmed al-Shaibany said.
At the same time, however, al-Shaibany called on tribal chiefs throughout Iraq to travel to Najaf to form human shields to protect al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army militants and the Imam Ali Shrine.
The renewed fighting on Sunday, a day after truce talks collapsed, apparently caused minor damage to the outer wall of the shrine compound, ripping off some tiles and leaving some holes.
The new clashes in Najaf killed two US soldiers from the First Cavalry Division on Sunday, the military reported on Monday. A third soldier was killed on Sunday in the volatile Anbar province, the centre of the country’s Sunni insurgency.
At least 934 US service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003.
The US military estimates hundreds of insurgents have been killed since the clashes broke out in Najaf on August 5, but the militants dispute the figure. Eight Americans have been killed, along with about 20 Iraqi officers, it said.
Conference to give voice to Iraqis
The three-day conference aims to give a broad spectrum of Iraqis a voice in the political process and increase the legitimacy of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s interim government, which is deeply dependent on American troops and money even after the end of the US occupation.
Just hours after the heavily guarded meeting began, however, insurgents fired a mortar barrage that landed at a nearby commuter bus station, killing two people and wounding 17 others, according to the Health Ministry.
The mortars apparently were aimed at the fortified Green Zone enclave where the conference is taking place, police said.
The continued Najaf fighting has undermined Allawi’s attempts to show he is in control. The country’s Shi’ite majority has been angered by the sight of US troops firing around some of their holiest sites — and many have blamed the Iraqi government.
Some conference delegates have staged loud protests and others have threatened to pull out if the violence does not end.
In an attempt to assuage the complaints, a working committee was formed to find a peaceful solution to the tension in Najaf.
Cabinet minister Waeil Abdel-Latif warned of a new major offensive in Najaf unless the militants drop their weapons, get out of the city and transform themselves into a political party.
“We shall give the peaceful way a chance … and after that, we shall take another position,” he said on Sunday.
He also said foreign fighters were among the militants captured in Najaf — a repeated government claim — and he played a video that shows interviews with Iranian, Egyptian and Jordanian fighters and boxes of weapons, reportedly from Iran.
Al-Sadr, a fiery young cleric, has drawn support among some with his denunciations of the continued US domination of the country.
He has depicted the fight by his followers as a campaign against occupation.
Mortar strike in Baqouba
In other violence, two civilians were killed and four others injured in the city of Baqouba on Monday when a mortar hit their house, said Ali Hussein, a medic at the main hospital in Baqouba.
It was not known who fired the mortar, but insurgents frequently clash with US troops and Iraqi security forces in the city, 60km north-east of Baghdad.
A roadside bomb in Baqouba also wounded three members of the Iraqi National Guard, said Zuhair Abdul-Kareem, a guardsman who was injured in the blast.
Also on Monday, a senior Iraqi official said a US journalist disappeared along with his Iraqi translator in the southern city of Nasiriyah.
Journalist Micah Garen and his translator, Amir Doushi, went missing on Friday in Nasiriyah as they were walking through a busy market, said Adnan al-Shoraify, deputy governor of the Dhi Qar province, which includes the city.
He said the translator’s family had first reported the two missing.
In the volatile Sunni city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, US warplanes bombed three neighborhoods on Sunday afternoon, killing five civilians and wounding six others, said Dr Adil Khamis, of Fallujah General hospital. — Sapa-AP