| A woman and her daughter walk past a US Bradley fighting vehicle in Najaf. (AFP)
Baghdad, Aug. 16 (Reuters): Iraqis meeting to pick an interim national assembly sent a delegation to Najaf today in an attempt to convince a radical Shia cleric to end a bloody conflict with US troops.
The Mehdi militia of Moqtada al-Sadr set an oil well on fire in southern Iraq, the government said, sparking a jump in world oil prices as they followed through on a threat to attack the country’s vital energy infrastructure over the Najaf crisis.
While sporadic skirmishes broke out in Najaf, fighting raged between American soldiers and the Mehdi militia in a Shia slum in Baghdad, where gunmen exploded a bomb under a US tank and then set it on fire.
The crew escaped with minor wounds, a US army spokesman said. An American helicopter gunship later strafed the street where the tank was hit. Militiamen responded with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles.
The move to send the delegation came after the Najaf fighting again dominated a meeting in Baghdad where 1,300 political and religious leaders will select an assembly to oversee the interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
Senior delegate Hussein al-Sadr, a close US ally, said the team would seek an end to a Shia uprising that has killed hundreds, unnerved oil markets and threatened to undermine Allawi’s authority only seven weeks since he took over.
“We will deliver this urgent call from the national conference to Moqtada al-Sadr ... to try to solve this problem at its roots,” Sadr, a distant relative but a political opponent of the cleric, said on the sidelines of the three-day meeting.
The delegation would try to give Sadr a letter, urging him to leave the sacred Imam Ali shrine where he is holed up with his fighters and turn his Mehdi Army into a political party. But the cleric has shown little sign of compromise, vowing to fight to the death if necessary.
He has demanded US forces leave Najaf and the government grant an amnesty to his fighters as part of any deal to end the 12-day conflict across eight cities.
The unrest forced Iraq to keep a main southern oil pipeline shut today, reducing export flows by almost half, an official said. Three US soldiers were killed in action yesterday in Najaf province, the military said. It gave no details.
A French journalist holding a US passport has been seized in the southern city of Nassiriya, al Jazeera television reported. The television said it had “learned” the journalist was an archaeological reporter. The interior ministry said it was checking reports that journalist Micah Jaren and his Iraqi translator were missing.
The French and American embassies said they had no information on the report.
Despite the apparent pro-government stance of the delegation, the conference has exposed deep divisions in Iraq over Najaf, with many delegates upset that US forces are fighting so close to Shia Islam’s holiest site.