NAJAF, Iraq -- Radical Shi'ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr refused yesterday to meet with a delegation of Iraqi political figures that had rushed here from Baghdad with a last-ditch offer for peace, deflating hopes for a quick resolution to the confrontation between Sadr's militia and US and Iraqi security forces.
The envoys had sought to personally demand that Sadr and his gunmen leave the sacred Shrine of Imam Ali, where they have been holed up since intense fighting broke out Aug. 5, and convert his militia into a political organization. In exchange, they would receive amnesty and safe passage out of the shrine.
The delegation waited in a darkened receiving room at the shrine for three hours, but had to leave without the hoped-for meeting.
Sadr aide Qais al-Khazali said the cleric declined to meet with the group because of continuing assaults in Najaf by US forces, and he accused the Americans of "preventing peaceful negotiations." The US-led military said it abated its attacks at the time of the planned evening meeting.
It was unclear late yesterday whether the delegation would return to Najaf to again try to meet with Sadr. But several delegation members expressed hope that they would return in two or three days.
Meanwhile, US and Iraqi military commanders pursued a second track for dealing with the recalcitrant cleric, spending the day in strategy sessions preparing to assault Sadr and his armed militia in the shrine.
Sadr's refusal to meet the delegation, coupled with the desire by both the Iraqi government and the US military to end the state of siege in Najaf, makes military action more likely in the coming days. At the same time, such an approach is riddled with risks.
The gold-domed shrine the militants have occupied is one of the holiest sites in the Shi'ite Muslim world. Imam Ali, founder of the Shi'ite sect, is thought to be buried there. Serious damage to the shrine would likely set off violent protests throughout Shi'ite areas of Iraq as well as in neighboring Muslim countries.
While the Iraqi government has given permission for Iraqi forces to enter the shrine to remove Sadr and his armed men, such an attack likely would result in a bloodbath. The shrine is within an enclosed courtyard, and if Iraqi police and national guard stormed the building, Sadr gunmen positioned on the roofs and loggias of the shrine would be positioned to pick off many of them.
Still some Iraqi politicians said that regardless of the outcome of the delegation's visit, it was an important step toward resolving the standoff in Najaf.
"The initiative was an excellent idea because it puts the onus on Moqtada Sadr to respond," said Samir Shakir Mahmoud Sumaidy, who formerly served as interior minister and was a member of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. As the peace effort proceeded, the Baghdad conference that is selecting a de facto parliament extended its meeting for an additional day, a delay which provided extra time for backroom politicking as tempers flared over the method adopted for electing national assembly members.
The delegation to Najaf made the trip after the conference of 1,300 representatives from across Iraq voted in favor of attempting to offer a peace deal to Sadr.
Much of the behind-the-scenes debate at the conference yesterday centered on a demand by Shi'ite religious parties for a majority of seats in the assembly, according to people close to the negotiations. A high-level delegation was dispatched yesterday evening to discuss the demand with Abdul Aziz Hakkim, a cleric and a leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the religious parties.
The eight-person delegation that went to Najaf to meet Sadr flew in two Black Hawk helicopters arranged by the office of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. They then traveled under Iraqi police escort to the Imam Ali shrine.
Once the delegation arrived, it was left to wait in a darkened receiving room for three hours. Although Sadr would not meet with them, citing the security concerns, his representatives said he welcomed their proposal, according to participants. "We had a feeling that the office of Moqtada Sadr is positive," said Hussein al-Sadr, the leader of the delegation and a distant cousin of the cleric.
"The office says Moqtada Sadr doesn't reject what came from the national conference. The message reached Moqtada Sadr. We hope there will be better circumstances to meet with him."