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US troops, militia fight pitched battles
Peace body flies into Najaf to end clashes

Najaf, Aug. 17 (Reuters): Iraqi political and religious leaders trying to end a radical Shia uprising flew into Najaf today, where US troops and militia fought pitched battles near the country’s holiest Islamic sites.

In Baghdad, insurgents fired a shell into a busy street, killing at least seven people, including two children.

The new violence, especially the challenge from radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, highlighted the massive security headaches for interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi barely seven weeks after he took over from US-led occupiers.

The eight-member delegation landed in Najaf on US military helicopters, hoping to persuade the firebrand cleric and his Mehdi Army militia to call off a rebellion that has hit eight southern and central cities and rattled oil markets.

Iraqis meeting at a national conference yesterday to pick an interim assembly agreed to send the team after Sadr’s weekend peace talks with the government collapsed and the cleric vowed to fight to the death from inside a sacred shrine.

“This is not a negotiation. This is a friendly mission to convey the message of the national conference,” delegation head Sheikh Hussein al-Sadr, a distant relative but political opponent of the cleric, said at a military camp on the outskirts of Najaf.

“We want to change the Mehdi Army into a political organisation and to evacuate the Imam Ali shrine with the promise not to legally pursue those taking shelter there. This is what the government and all Iraqis want.”

As the delegation waited at the camp to be driven in civilian cars to the shrine, US troops fired some 20 artillery rounds at militia positions in the city.

The delegation had put off travelling by road to the southern city after insurgents threatened to ambush them.

Aides to the cleric, who is the icon of Iraq’s downtrodden Shia masses, have said he welcomed the idea of sending the team but have not said whether he will meet the mission.

Speaking during a trip to Turkey, interim President Ghazi al-Yawar called on the militia to stop fighting.

The attack in Baghdad’s bustling Rasheed Street wounded 42 people, destroyed at least five cars and left pools of blood on sidewalks. Some officials said a roadside bomb caused the blast.

It followed a mortar attack near the fortified Green Zone compound where the political and religious leaders were meeting to select a 100-member interim national assembly. Officials said it was unclear if there were any casualties from that attack.

Explosions echoed across Najaf’s old city and thick smoke rose into the sky as US tanks and armoured vehicles took positions near the holy sites where Sadr’s militia are entrenched.

A Reuters photographer was wounded in the leg while covering the fighting. The photographer, an Iraqi, was treated for bullet fragment wounds at a US combat hospital and later released.

The national conference is expected to select the assembly later to oversee the interim government until January elections, but Najaf has dominated the three-day gathering.

Once appointed, the interim assembly will be able to veto legislation with a two-thirds majority, approve Iraq's 2005 budget, and appoint a new prime minister or president should either resign or die in office.

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