Najaf Clashes Occupy Panel
Delegates to the political conference where Iraq’s future as a democracy was being planned shrugged off a nearby mortar attack, then sharply debated the situation in Najaf, where fighting between U.S.-led forces and a radical Shiite Muslim militia resumed Sunday.
In a country where, under Saddam Hussein, public sparring between different branches of government had been dangerous, about 1,100 delegates assembled to select an interim national assembly took the unusual step of protesting the government’s plans and calling for a peaceful resolution of the Najaf crisis.
The collapse of negotiations between the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr brought fervent pleas from many delegates who called on authorities not to authorize a fresh attack in Najaf, a city holy to Shiites. Scores, possibly hundreds, have died since the fighting erupted Aug. 5.
“I wished that Iraq after Saddam would be different,” one delegate said from the floor, in comments typical of the day’s debate. “No bloodshed! Long live Iraq!”
Allawi has promised to remove Sadr’s Al Mahdi militia from its strongholds, and the firebrand cleric has said he would resist to the “last drop” of his blood -- and has urged his followers to fight on if he were killed.
While politicians debated in the capital, residents in Najaf braced for more violence after the two-day cease-fire ended. Sporadic fighting was reported during the day as U.S. and Iraqi troops tightened the cordon they set up last week to hem in the insurgents.
The clashes Sunday were on a smaller scale than the fierce battles seen last week. U.S. soldiers and Marines resumed “clearing operations” aimed at isolating Sadr’s forces, which are holed up in and around Najaf’s Imam Ali shrine and another mosque in nearby Kufa.
The conference in Baghdad, which is to select a de facto parliament by Tuesday, had been delayed for two weeks to allow a broader cross-section of religious and ethnic groups to be represented.
While the conference was underway, insurgents targeted the high-security zone where it was being held. Mortar rounds hit a nearby bus station, killing two Iraqis and wounding 17.
Delegates seemed unmoved by the violence. The conference -- to which 1,300 delegates were invited and more than 1,100 showed up -- got off to a routine start with uplifting speeches by key dignitaries including President Ghazi Ajil Yawer, Prime Minister Allawi and United Nations special representative Ashraf Jehangir Qazi.
“Your blessed gathering here is a challenge to the forces of evil and tyranny that want to destroy this country,” Allawi said.
Yawer described the three-day conference as a “historic experiment” that marked the “first step in a long path” to building a democratic Iraq.
“We need to get back to full independence and end the occupation, and it cannot be done except by practical steps to achieve democracy,” he said.
But protests erupted as soon as the speeches ended.
Nadim Jadari, a leader of the Shiite Political Council, took the stage and threatened a walkout unless negotiations were resumed in Najaf.
“The Iraqi government bears the responsibility for what is going on in Najaf. It has brought U.S. forces to hit our people in Najaf,” said Falah Hassan, another leader of the group.
“Our demand is to halt the military operations in Najaf and other parts of Iraq. We will withdraw from the conference within 24 hours if our demands are not met,” he said.
Throughout the day, speaker after speaker called for a peaceful resolution in Najaf and criticized any plans to move aggressively against Sadr’s militia.
“The Americans are starting to lead and manage the battle in Najaf as if they are the government,” complained one delegate from the floor.
Another spoke of “the catastrophe that is engulfing Najaf” and called on the government to “intervene to stop this fight.”
“How can they stand silent while they see the sons of the country are killed?” the speaker said. “The government should launch a cease-fire, stop the killing of the weak, stop the bombardment of towns and prohibit the use of force against any town, and instead use dialogue.”
One woman who disagreed and blamed the Najaf violence on the Al Mahdi militia was nearly drowned out by jeers and counter arguments. She could be heard demanding of Sadr’s forces: “Get out of the holy places!”
Critics of the crackdown in Najaf initiated a move to have the conference issue a statement calling for a peaceful settlement. A committee was selected to draw up the statement.
The final document, in the form of a request to the government, called for an immediate cease-fire in Najaf, withdrawal of all military forces from the city, political dialogue and the rule of law. It was approved by a show of hands.
Although the document demanded a peaceful solution, Minister of State for Provinces Wael Abdulatif portrayed it as being not very different from the government’s position.
At an evening news conference, Abdulatif said that in addition to calling for a peaceful settlement, the statement said that “law and order should be applied and no militia can be in the cities of Iraq, including Najaf.”
Abdulatif told reporters the government hoped to avoid additional bloodshed -- but he reiterated that the insurgents’ only choice was to leave the mosque peacefully or be forced out.
“The position of the government still is that we need to eradicate all armed militia and open the way for them to join the political process,” Abdulatif said.
He also sought to position the interim government as the defender of the Imam Ali mosque, not the party threatening it.
“The government of Iraq wants the best for its people, the defense of the sacred places,” he declared. “But the Mahdi army are insisting that they will go on subjecting the country to danger. We continue to see chaotic and non-peaceful actions by the Mahdi army in different cities of Iraq.... We have decided to do away with all armed demonstrations and to free the holy shrine of Najaf of all armed people.”
There is still “an open door” for Sadr’s forces, but “the open door may not remain open,” Abdulatif said.
“As the Iraqi government, we call on all those who are in the sacred shrine to vacate it, and we warn everyone there,” he said.
Times staff writer Mark Mazzetti contributed to this report.