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18 August, 2004 - Published 12:57 GMT
Iraq cleric refuses to meet delegation
Iraqi political and religious leaders, and representatives of the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, described a visit to Najaf by a Baghdad delegation as positive. Although they didn't meet with the cleric himself, one delegate says they will return soon. This report from Kylie Morris:
At first, Moqtada al-Sadr said he couldn't meet the delegation as they were mere messengers rather than legitimate negotiators. Later, he revised his position and said the reason why he couldn't meet the delegates was to do with security concerns.
It was a high-risk venture for the team of six sent from the capital; their plans to travel by road from Baghdad were quashed by an ambush threat. Ultimately, they were brought to Najaf by a US military helicopter. They then drove quickly through the streets of the old city to reach the Imam Ali shrine. Exchanges of mortar fire could be heard and American helicopters and an A10 war plane targeted Mehdi army positions, even as the delegates were inside.
Participants at Iraq's national conference will be encouraged that their delegation made the journey to Najaf successfully, even if they failed to meet Moqtada al-Sadr himself. The cleric remains in a strong position, with Shia Islam's holiest site under the rule of his militia and US-led forces reluctant to cause any damage to the sacred city, aware of the negative repercussions that would likely prompt.
The delegates brought with them an ambitious list, requesting that the militia be disbanded and leave the shrine, with a promise of political legitimacy for Moqtada al-Sadr if he cooperates. There's no sign of that happening. But the sheer fact that another avenue for dialogue has now been opened will help the residents of Najaf's old city to hope that the fighting might soon be over.
Kylie Morris, BBC, Najaf
revised his position
an ambitious list
another avenue for dialogue