Gunfire and explosions echoed across Al-Najaf today as U.S. and Iraqi troops fought Shi'a militiamen in the old city.
The uprising in Al-Najaf is led by al-Sadr. Yesterday, he snubbed a peace mission trying to broker a truce and sent his aides instead -- ostensibly for security reasons.
Today, one of the members of that peace delegation, Fawzi Hamza, said the group is ready to go down to Al-Najaf again to try and convince al-Sadr to end his rebellion.
"I am very optimistic, and I can say that the initiative could be successful if we went down again to the holy city of Al-Najaf to meet Muqtada al-Sadr on condition that the situation in the holy city of Al-Najaf is secure and stable. The initiative will be successful if the siege on the holy city of Al-Najaf is removed," Hamza said.
Amid talk of a peaceful resolution to the standoff, there were stronger words from the Iraqi defense minister. Al Arabiyah television quotes Hazim Sha'lan al-Khuza'i as saying he expects a "decisive battle" in Al-Najaf today that will force al-Sadr's militiamen out of the city.
But U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said earlier that U.S. troops are "unlikely" to storm the Imam Ali shrine, al-Sadr's headquarters in Al-Najaf and one of Shi'a Islam's most sacred sites.
"It's unlikely that the U.S. forces would be the ones that would deal with the holy places. That's just not something that we are likely to do. I would think that the Iraqi forces would be the ones that would deal with that, because it's such a significant thing to the religion," Rumsfeld said.
Earlier this year, al-Sadr agreed to a truce after leading a bloody two-month rebellion against the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Fighting between al-Sadr's militia and U.S. and Iraqi forces resumed earlier this month, however.Conference Extends
The two-week uprising in Al-Najaf has cast a shadow over a National Conference in Baghdad that is considered key to the country's political future.
The conference had been due yesterday to announce the makeup of a new 100-member council to oversee the interim government. But it has extended to a fourth day amid disagreements among the some 1,300 delegates over the situation in Al-Najaf -- as well as the makeup of the advisory council itself.
The National Conference is due to pick 81 candidates, while the remaining 19 will come from Iraq's now defunct Governing Council.
Many delegates are accusing the country's big political parties of dominating the selection process.
Yesterday, independent and nongovernmental delegates said a list of members presented by conference chairman Fu'ad Mas'um had been chosen by the pro-U.S. interim government.
Mas'um says the advisory body should be selected today. He says delegates are now discussing the mechanism for drawing up the list of 81 members.
(Agencies/RFE/RL)For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".