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Fighting In Al-Najaf As Baghdad Conference Opens

Al-Sadr fighters in Al-Najaf (file photo) 15 August 2004 -- Iraqi provincial leaders have opened a national conference in Baghdad on the future of their country. But as the three-day event was getting under way, there were reports of fresh violence in Al-Najaf and in Baghdad.

Some 1,300 Iraqi political and religious leaders gathered in Baghdad today to discuss security, democratic reforms, reconstruction, and human rights issues. But the opening of the three-day event was overshadowed by fresh fighting in the Shi'ite Muslim holy city of Al-Najaf and by a series of explosions in the Iraqi capital.

The gathering is taking place in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone compound. Delegates are to choose 81 members of a 100-member interim assembly -- known as the Iraqi National Council -- at the conclusion of the event on 17 August. The other 19 seats already have been allocated to members of the defunct interim Governing Council. The National Council is to oversee Iraq's interim administration until elections next January.

Ashraf Qazi, the special envoy of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, told delegates that their work is essential to the future of democracy in Iraq. "It is clearly your common interest that you succeed in electing an interim council that is as credible and inclusive [as possible] to ensure successful elections by 31 January 2005 -- and the transition of Iraq to a constitutional democracy by the end of the same year," he said.

Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi told delegates that their votes on 17 August will represent the first step on the path to democracy in post-Saddam Iraq. Allawi said the presence of the delegates is the biggest challenge to insurgents and renegade militia fighters who want to tear the country apart.

As Allawi spoke, correspondents reported a fresh outbreak of fighting in Al-Najaf between the Imam Al-Mahdi Army of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the combined military forces of the United States and the Iraqi interim government.

An AFP correspondent who defied an order from Iraqi police for all journalists to leave Al-Najaf has reported hearing tank and automatic-rifle fire. Thick plumes of black smoke also could be seen rising near the sprawling cemetery that adjoins the sacred Imam Ali shrine in central Al-Najaf.

That fighting follows an announcement late yesterday by Iraqi National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i that peace talks in Al-Najaf had collapsed. Al-Rubay'i said Iraqi government forces would soon be involved in what he called "clearing operations" -- a military term describing offensive operations aimed at eliminating pockets of resistance.

"It is the absolute duty of this government to install law and order all over Iraq. And we will do whatever is required to install law and order in Al-Najaf and in the other cities in Iraq as well," al-Rubay'i said.

Delegates who represent al-Sadr were invited to the Baghdad conference but are boycotting the event. Other Shi'ite groups are taking part. News of the fresh fighting in Al-Najaf today outraged those Shi'ite delegates, who demanded an immediate halt to the violence.

Meanwhile, correspondents at the conference reported hearing at least five explosions near the Green Zone. Iraq's Interior Ministry has confirmed that the explosions were mortar rounds fired by suspected insurgents. At least one Iraqi outside of the Green Zone was killed in that attack.

For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".