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Iraqi Delegation Seeks Meeting With Rebel Cleric

Fighting in Najaf and other southern cities has killed hundreds since the cleric’s supporters, known as the Mahdi Army, began an uprising Aug. 5 against Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces, the U.S. military and Iraqi Health Ministry has said.

At least one U.S. warplane bombed near Najaf’s vast cemetery as fighting continued Tuesday.

Najaf is the site of the Imam Ali Shrine, one of Iraq’s holiest Shiite Muslim sites.

“This is not a negotiation. This is a friendly mission to convey the message of the national conference,” said Hussein al-Sadr, who led the delegation, according to Bloomberg News. “We want to change the Mahdi Army into a political organization and to evacuate the shrine of Ali with the promise not to legally pursue those taking shelter there.”

The two al-Sadrs are related, according to the Agence France-Presse.

The eight political and religious leaders flew to Najaf in a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter and drove to Muqtada al-Sadr’s office near the Imam Ali Shrine, where the cleric and his followers are holed up, Reuters reported.

Al-Sadr, however, reportedly refused to meet the delegation because of “American aggression” as U.S. troops continued to fire on militia positions, one of his aides said.

The Vatican had offered to help with the talks on the condition that “the will to follow peaceful paths as a solution to the conflict truly exists,” said Vatican spokesman Ciro Benedettini in a statement. “The Papal Nuncio in Baghdad is actively following developments” in Iraq, he said.

In Baghdad, a mortar round exploded on a street in the central part of the capital several miles away from where the Iraqi National Conference was meeting, killing seven people and wounding 35, according to the Health Ministry.

Two other explosions shook the conference center itself, slightly injuring two people, the Associated Press reported.

The conference, which has been meeting since Sunday, extended its session another day to Wednesday as the 1,300 delegates sought to reach a consensus on a 100-member interim national assembly, officials said, according to Reuters.

Fouad Massoum, chairman of the meeting to pick the assembly, said independent and non-governmental delegates would be able to submit their own candidates Wednesday after they rejected a list he presented as being picked by the pro-U.S. interim government.

Nineteen seats on the assembly are reserved for members of the now-defunct Iraqi Governing Council. The assembly draws on representatives all over Iraq to help organize elections due by January.

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