Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr accepted a peace plan on Wednesday to end the fighting in Najaf that would disarm his militia and remove them from their hideout in a holy shrine, but he still wanted to negotiate how the deal would be implemented, an aide to the cleric said.
If the agreement is fulfilled - and al-Sadr has made contradictory statements in the past - it would resolve a crisis that had angered many of Iraq's majority Shiites and threatened to undermine the fledgling interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, which is already fighting a persistent Sunni insurgency.
But, reports CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen, Muqtada al-Sadr has pulled his militia off the streets before when faced with overwhelming odds. Only one thing remains constant with him: the demand that U.S. forces abandon Iraq. It's made him a defiant hero here, far more popular than the interim government.
In other developments:
Al-Sadr's loyalists and a combined U.S.-Iraqi force have been fighting for nearly two weeks throughout the holy city, battling in Najaf's vast graveyard and in the streets of its Old City. A wall surrounding the Imam Ali Shrine, where the militants have holed up, was reportedly chipped in the fighting, and any damage to the gold-domed mosque itself would infuriate the world's 120 million Shiite Muslims.
On Wednesday afternoon, Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan said the government could send Iraqi forces to raid the shrine by the end of the day. Allawi issued a statement accusing the militants of mining the area around the shrine.
Hours later, al-Sadr's office sent a message to the National Conference in Baghdad, saying he would accept the gathering's peace proposal, which demands his militia drop its arms, withdraw from the shrine and transform itself into a political party in exchange for amnesty.
The government welcomed the move.
"Muqtada al-Sadr has accepted the initiative and we are waiting for its implementation," Hameed al-Kafaei, a government spokesman, told Al-Arabiya television.
Gunbattles, explosions and other clashes continued to plague Najaf even after the agreement was announced Wednesday.
The fighting in Najaf killed eight people and wounded 27 others Wednesday, Hussein Hadi of Najaf General Hospital said.
The U.S. military says the clashes in Najaf have killed hundreds of militants, though the militants deny that. Eight U.S. soldiers and at least 40 Iraqi police have been killed as well.
The violence in Najaf had threatened to overshadow the National Conference, a gathering of more than 1,000 prominent Iraqis seen as an important milestone on the country's path to democracy.
The conference spilled into an unscheduled fourth day on Wednesday so it could choose members of an interim National Council, which is to act as a watchdog over the interim government until elections in January.
Disputes persisted at the conference throughout the day over how to choose 81 elected members of the council, with small parties complaining they were being strong-armed by the large factions into accepting their slate of candidates.
A planned vote to affirm a slate of 81 candidates was called off at the last minute and the conference organizers simply affirmed the group, to the dismay of many of those who were not included in the council. The final 19 members of the 100-member council will be members of the former Iraqi Governing Council who were left out of the interim government.
The conference was considered a top target for insurgents, and a mortar round hit the roof of Iraq's Foreign Ministry building nearby Wednesday, causing no damage or injuries, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said. Zebari said he believed the mortar was aimed at the fortified enclave where the conference was held.
The Najaf crisis dominated the gathering from the start. In an effort to resolve it, the conference sent a peace delegation to Najaf on Tuesday.
Al-Sadr refused to meet with the group; his aides said the fighting made it too dangerous.
Many delegates said Wednesday they were fed up with al-Sadr, and later in the day, Shaalan said the government could raid the shrine within hours.
Now that the peace talks have not worked, "we have to turn to what's stronger and greater in order to teach them a lesson that they won't forget, and to teach others a lesson as well," Shaalan said.
"Today is a day to set this compound free from its imprisonment and its vile occupation," Shaalan said.