A U.S. warplane bombed Najaf's vast cemetery as fighting with Shiite militants intensified Tuesday, while an Iraqi delegation brought a peace proposal aimed at ending the standoff in the holy city.
At least one plane dropped bombs in the cemetery, where followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have been battling U.S. troops since Aug. 5. Explosions and gunfire shook the streets throughout the day and U.S. troops entered the flashpoint Old City neighborhood, where al-Sadr's Mahdi Army was based.
The clashes Tuesday killed three people and wound 15 others, all of them civilians, according to rescue worker Sadiq al-Shaibany.
Two of the casualties were killed when gunfire hit the office of the Badr Brigades, the militant wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is not involved in the fighting, according to Ridha Taqi, a SCIRI official.
The peace proposal, cobbled together by delegates at Iraq's National Conference, demanded that al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia put down its arms, leave the Imam Ali Shrine where it is holed up and join Iraq's political process in exchange for amnesty.
The 8-member delegation arrived at a U.S. military base in Najaf on Tuesday afternoon aboard two U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopters. A much larger delegation of 60 conference members had planned to take a convoy on the 100-mile journey to Najaf. That trip was delayed, and then eventually called off, because of security concerns.
In other developments:
Militants have been battling U.S. troops from Najaf's vast cemetery and revered Imam Ali Shrine since Aug. 5, when a two-month old cease-fire broke down.
Al-Sadr aides said they welcomed the delegates' mission, but not the peace proposal.
"The demands of the (National Conference) committee are impossible. The shrine compound must be in the hands of the religious authorities. They are asking us to leave Najaf while we are the sons of Najaf," said al-Sadr aide, Sheik Ali Smeisim.
However, the Vatican's offer gained support from al-Sadr's aides.
"We welcome the initiative of the pope at the Vatican and call on him to intervene to solve the crisis," al-Sadr aide Ahmed al-Shaibany said in Najaf.
The three-day National Conference in Baghdad was supposed to be a revolutionary moment in Iraq's democratic transformation post-Saddam Hussein, an unprecedented gathering of 1,300 Iraqis from all ethnic and religious groups for vigorous debate over their country's course.
It also was intended to increase the legitimacy of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's government, which is deeply dependent on American troops and money even after the official U.S. occupation ended.
But the violence in Najaf, which resumed Sunday after cease-fire talks broke down, has diverted the gathering's attention.
Some delegates threatened to walk out in protest of the government's effort to crack down on the militants, while others called for al-Sadr to abandon his uprising. Still others said the crisis only made the conference more relevant.
The national conference itself was considered a major target for militants waging a 16-month-old insurgency in the country and an explosion, reportedly from a mortar, shook the area near the building on Tuesday.
Al-Sadr aide Ali al-Yassiry, who said he came to the conference to talk to U.N. officials about the Najaf violence, said he was slightly injured in the blast.
Al-Sadr's followers have said they were boycotting the gathering, though several members of his movement have been seen there in recent days.
The conference was to vote Tuesday on members of a national council that will serve as a watchdog over the interim government before elections expected in January. But the conference decided not to hold the vote until the delegation returned from Najaf.
Iraq is scheduled to hold January elections to choose a transitional government. That government will convene a national convention to draft a constitution for consideration by voters in October 2005. A vote for a constitutionally based government will follow two months later.
The conference also was meant to discuss reconstruction efforts, a persistent Sunni uprising and other key issues while reassuring the public that all groups will have a voice in the new Iraq.
If al-Sadr agrees to stand down, the conference will have succeeded in turning a crisis that threatened to torpedo the gathering into a startling, symbolic victory showing the potential power of communal solutions in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
If he refuses, the conflict will have done little more than distract attention from other pressing issues and damage conference organizers' efforts to project an optimistic image of national unity.
"We hope he will accept it. This country has seen so much violence and so much bitterness, it's time that we seek a way out," said Barham Saleh, deputy prime minister for national security.