NAJAF, Iraq — Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr refused Tuesday to meet with a delegation of Iraqi political and religious figures that had rushed here from Baghdad with a last-ditch offer for peace. The rebuff deflated hopes for a quick resolution to the confrontation between Sadr's militia and U.S. and Iraqi security forces.
The envoys had sought to personally demand that Sadr and his gunmen leave the sacred Imam Ali Mosque compound, where they have been holed up since intense fighting broke out Aug. 5, and convert his militia into a political organization. In exchange, they would receive amnesty and safe passage out of the shrine.
After making their way through a war zone to reach the shrine, the delegation waited in a darkened receiving room for three hours but had to go back to Baghdad without the hoped-for meeting.
Sadr aide Qais Khazali said the cleric had declined to meet with the group because of continuing assaults in Najaf by U.S. forces, and he accused the Americans of "preventing peaceful negotiations." The U.S. military said it had tried to scale back the fighting for the evening meeting but returned fire when attacked.
It was unclear late Tuesday whether the delegation would return to Najaf to again try to meet with Sadr. However, several delegation members expressed hope that they would return in two or three days.
Meanwhile, U.S. and Iraqi military commanders pursued a second track for dealing with the recalcitrant cleric, spending the day in strategy sessions preparing to assault Sadr and his armed militia in the shrine.
Sadr's refusal to meet with the delegation, coupled with the desire of both the Iraqi government and the American military to end the siege in Najaf, makes military action more likely in the coming days. At the same time, such an approach is fraught with risks.
The gold-domed shrine the militants have occupied is one of the holiest sites in the Shiite Muslim world. Imam Ali, the prophet Muhammad's son-in-law, is thought to be buried there. Serious damage to the shrine would probably set off violent protests throughout Shiite areas of Iraq as well as in neighboring Muslim countries.
Although the Iraqi government has given permission for Iraqi forces to enter the shrine to remove Sadr and his armed men, such an attack could result in a bloodbath. The shrine is in an enclosed courtyard, and if the Iraqi police and national guard stormed the building, Sadr gunmen on the roofs and loggias of the shrine would be positioned to pick many of them off.
Regardless of the outcome of the delegation's visit, some Iraqi politicians said, it was an important step toward resolving the standoff.
"The initiative was an excellent idea because it puts the onus on Muqtada Sadr to respond," said Samir Shakir Mahmoud Sumaidy, a former interior minister who was on the now-disbanded U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council.
The delegation to Najaf made the trip after a conference in Baghdad of more than 1,100 representatives from across Iraq voted in favor of attempting to offer a peace deal to Sadr.
As the peace effort proceeded, the conference, which is selecting an interim national assembly, extended its meeting by a day to provide extra time for back-room politicking as tempers flared over the method adopted for electing the assembly's members.
Much of the behind-the-scenes debate at the conference Tuesday centered on a demand by Shiite religious parties for a majority of seats in the assembly, people close to the negotiations said. A high-level delegation was dispatched Tuesday evening to discuss the demand with Abdelaziz Hakim, a cleric and a leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the religious parties.
The eight envoys who went to Najaf to meet Sadr flew in two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters. Their flight was arranged by the office of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. They then traveled under Iraqi police escort to the Imam Ali shrine.
The group refused to travel in armored U.S. military vehicles for fear it would give the wrong impression to the staunchly anti-American Sadr forces and to others in Najaf, who may not support Sadr but are also antagonistic to the U.S. presence in the holy city.
In a measure of the riskiness of the security situation, the delegation's plans to drive to Najaf early Tuesday with a large group had to be scrapped because of intelligence that there were at least three ambushes planned in the town of Latifiya, said Fawzi Hamza, a member of the delegation.
Once in Najaf, the group entered a war zone. There was the regular boom of Bradley guns echoing through the narrow alleys of the Old City near the shrine and the sharper bangs of the rocket-propelled grenades fired by Sadr's Al Mahdi militia. While parts of the city distant from the shrine were largely deserted, streets close to the holy site were packed with young Sadr militiamen hoisting assault rifles and grenade launchers.