U.S. troops killed at least four Iraqis and wounded another 36 in clashes with supporters of radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Al-Kufah yesterday. The latest fighting comes as two U.S. soldiers were killed in the area over the past week.
The continued fighting has led many observers to question whether a peace offer made by al-Sadr last week retains any significance. The peace offer was originally announced by the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) as a major breakthrough in finding an "Iraqi solution" to the Al-Najaf standoff.
At the time, U.S. officials said they also would play their part in ending the crisis. Dan Senor, the spokesman for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), said: "We are hopeful that Muqtada al-Sadr will live up to the commitments he made in this letter. If Muqtada al-Sadr does in fact live up to the commitments he made to the Shi'a house, we will play our part."
But over the past week, the resulting truce in Najaf has looked ever more tenuous.
The U.S. daily "The Washington Post" reported yesterday that "almost all the conditions of the deal worked out last Thursday have failed to hold."
Under the peace offer, al-Sadr was to send home his armed supporters who are not residents of Al-Najaf and open the way for police and other Iraqi security forces to patrol the city.
U.S. officials said that once Iraqi security forces assumed responsibility for public security, coalition forces would respond by repositioning to their bases outside Al-Najaf.
But "The New York Times" noted that not only has Sadr not removed his militia -- the Al-Mahdi Army -- from Al-Najaf, he also has yet to begin promised talks with mainstream Shi'a leaders on two key subjects essential to Washington.
Those subjects are discussing turning the Al-Mahdi Army into a political organization and discussing U.S. calls for al-Sadr to be brought to justice for his alleged role in the assassination of a rival Western-leaning Shi'a cleric last year. An Iraqi judge has issued an arrest warrant for al-Sadr in the murder case.
Still, as the past days have been dominated by news of continuing clashes, there are some signs that a new peacemaking deal is in the offing.
One sign came from the new U.S.-backed governor of Al-Najaf, Adnan Zurfi, on 1 June. Zurfi said in Al-Kufah that the Al-Mahdi Army had agreed to further terms for leaving the city and forecast that the fighters would withdraw by the weekend.
At the same time, local officials told reporters yesterday that prominent Iraqi Shi'a politicians were in Al-Najaf trying to negotiate an end to the skirmishes.
But the most promising event of the past week may have been the formation of a new umbrella group for Shi'a religious and secular parties that includes both groups that cooperate with the United States and representatives of al-Sadr. Previously, the cleric has refused to participate in groupings dealing with Washington, such as the IGC.
Asad Turki Swari, the spokesman for al-Sadr in [western] Baghdad's Al-Kharkh district, told RFE/RL yesterday that two groups tied to the cleric will be in the new umbrella group, the Islamic Political Council: "[The Islamic Political Council] embodies most of the Islamic parties, secular and religious, like Al-Dawah party, and Hezbollah of Iraq and the INC [Iraqi National Congress], and also Dr. Salama al-Khafaji, and all of them are members of the Governing Council. This [Islamic Political] Council was established last week, we established this council to be a Shi'a party far away from the scholars (eds: the Shi'a religious establishment), though it is with their knowledge. There are two political fronts which belong to Muqtada al-Sadr and both are in this council. I won't tell you their names at the moment."
Swari confirmed that intensive negotiations are continuing between al-Sadr and the mainstream Shi'a leadership, and suggested the coming days could see progress.
"The American attack has been suspended, as it was announced by the American occupation, for the time it takes the [Al-]Mahdi army to withdraw from Najaf and be replaced by Iraqi police only," he said. "Mr. Muqtada gave several suggestions and until now the negotiations are underway, and in the next upcoming hours we will see, and we will know the opinion of the office of Mr. Muqtada."
He continued: "In the past, Mr. Muqtada declared that if suitable forces were to take over, like forces from the tribes or Iraqi police, to protect the holy sites then he will pull out the Mahdi army. That's what he announced before."
As negotiations continue to seek a workable Iraqi solution to the Al-Najaf crisis, the outline of one plan has repeatedly surfaced in the media.
The U.S. daily "The Christian Science Monitor" reported recently that Shi'a tribal leaders have proposed that al-Sadr agree to face trial over the murder charges but save face by surrendering to tribal authorities instead of to U.S. forces.
Under the tribal leaders' plan, the cleric would also receive the right to approve the names of the judges who would decide his case in exchange for his pledge to abide by their decision.
Aides to one of the Shi'a leaders negotiating in Al-Najaf this week, Salama al-Khafaji, have described the plan as an "attempt to solve the legal question" around al-Sadr "and not just the security question." It is not clear to what extent Washington, which would also have to approve the plan to end the crisis, supports it.
Al-Sadr, who launched his armed rebellion early last month, has been under increasing pressure from mainstream Shi'a leaders to quickly bring it to a halt. Top Shi'a religious figures have warned that fighting in Al-Najaf endangers holy sites and have called on all armed forces to leave all Iraqi Shi'a shrine cities.
(RFE/RL freelancer Sami Alkhoja contributed to this report.)