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Delegates to seek Sadr concession

Group set to travel to Najaf today

BAGHDAD -- Iraqis attending a national political conference agreed yesterday to dispatch a delegation to the embattled city of Najaf to try to persuade rebellious Shi'ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to disband his militia, vacate a religious shrine, and participate in the country's political process.

Journalist with ties to Boston area is kidnapped in Iraq. B5.

The new initiative was described by political leaders as a final attempt to forge a deal with Sadr. It would prevent the use of force to flush Sadr's militia out of the gold-domed Imam Ali shrine.

The delegation of more than 60 people was scheduled to leave Baghdad early this morning. An aide to Sadr said the delegation would be welcomed in Najaf, but he refused to say whether the cleric would meet with the group or accept the terms.

In Najaf, scattered fighting continued for the second day after a pause to accommodate the previous attempt to negotiate a settlement.

US Marines reinforced Army patrols in a vast cemetery where two soldiers from the First Cavalry Division were killed Sunday, while armored patrols pushed closer to the shrine to raid what commanders called militia gathering points. US forces also used artillery to pound suspected militia positions in the cemetery.

The political conference, which has been attended by more than 1,100 Iraqis, had been convened to select an interim national assembly. But that task has been subordinated by an overwhelming desire among the participants to find a solution to the standoff in Najaf between Sadr's militia and the US military.

After issuing a manifesto on Sunday calling for the interim prime minister to refrain from offensive military operations against Sadr and his militia, the conference yesterday denounced Sadr's use of shrines as a refuge for his militia and condemned the very existence of armed militias in the new Iraq.

''The presence of an armed militia means there is a state within a state, and this won't work," said a statement of principles approved by the conference yesterday. The statement, which delegates approved with a standing ovation, called on Sadr to leave the shrine -- noting that it is ''not the personal property of anyone" -- and urged him to transform his militia into a nonviolent political organization.

Clerics and representatives of the interim government have tried without success to mediate the Najaf standoff, but they did not wield the same clout as a request from more than 1,000 Iraqis, many of them Shi'ites who sympathize with Sadr but object to his violent methods.

But many of the delegates remained skeptical that the mercurial Sadr, who has dismissed the conference as illegitimate, would accept their proposal. Even if he did, they questioned whether he would follow through, noting that he had repeatedly reneged on previous agreements.

Despite the efforts to broker a deal in Baghdad, Sadr's supporters spent the day preparing for a showdown. Wire services reported that thousands of Sadr loyalists from southern Iraq have converged on the shrine, promising to act as human shields in the event of a military assault.

In Baghdad, fighting erupted between US soldiers and Sadr's militia in the Shi'ite slum of Sadr City, where militants detonated a bomb under a tank and then set the vehicle on fire.

The tank's crew escaped with minor wounds, and a helicopter gunship later strafed the street where the tank was hit, while militiamen responded with rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles.

Sadr City residents reached by telephone said heavy fighting resumed in the area yesterday evening after a US military vehicle was attacked with a roadside bomb.

Although US and Iraqi forces have pursued Sadr's militia in various parts of Najaf, they have refrained from entering the Imam Ali shrine.

Iraqi government officials have said any assault on the shrine would be conducted by Iraqi security forces, but they have insisted that such an order would be issued only if Sadr and his militia, called the Mahdi Army, refuse to budge.

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