08/16/2004, 00.00
IRAQ
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Battle in Najaf overshadows National Conference in Baghdad

Baghdad (AsiaNews) – "It's a great day in Iraq's history", said Mithal al-Alusi, one of the 1,300 delegates assembled for the National Conference in Baghdad. "Holding this conference is an important step in creating some kind of supervision of the government, in accordance with the constitutional mandate," he added.

After several delays the gathering was off to a rocky start. Security was intense –checkpoints, aircrafts overhead, concrete barriers– but not tight enough. The conference area was in fact hit by three mortar attacks damaging a bus station and a taxi stationed in Baghdad's Green Zone killing two people and injuring a dozen more.

After interrupting the speech by United Nations Special Envoy Ashraf Jehangir Qazi about 100 delegates walked out in sign of protest against the renewed clashes in the holy city of Najaf between US troops and Moqtada al-Sadr's militants.

Despite being beset by all sorts of problems the conference represents a step towards the normalisation of the country in view of national elections scheduled for January 2005. It is expected to choose 81 of the 100 members of the new National Council with the remainder coming from former members of the old provisional Iraqi Governing Council.

For Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, "this conference is the first step ... to open up horizons of dialogue and face the forces of evil and tyranny that want to destroy this country."

Fighting in Najaf between US forces and al-Sadr's rebels has however monopolised attention. Delegates from Beit Shia (Shiite House), a grouping of Islamic parties, called for an end to fighting in Najaf and the withdrawal of police forces. "As long as clashes in the holy city go on," one of the delegates from the group said," we cannot take part in the conference."

For the past two weeks fighting has been relentless. US troops backed by Iraq's National Guard have engaged al-Sadr's militia. Al-Sadr himself is holed up with about 1,000 fighters inside the Imam Ali mosque, one of the holiest Shiite shrines. US troop surround the mosque but have not yet received any order to storm it out of fear that an attack might damage the building.

Attempts to find a solution have so far failed. Prime Minister Allawi has urged al-Sadr to disarm his Mahdi army and come to the negotiating table but to no avail.

The interim government has pledged that only Iraqi troops would move into Najaf's holy shrine but reports speak of poorly trained Iraqi troops unwilling to carry out such an action.

The Allawi government is in a difficult bind for it must find a solution to the crisis in Najaf as well as cope with the steady flow of foreign Islamic fighters who are entering the country illegally bringing economic and military aid to rebels and terrorists. (DS)

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