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Iraqi Leadership Conference to Send Peace Delegation to Najaf - 2004-08-16

Fierce fighting continues in the Iraqi city of Najaf, hours after leaders meeting in Baghdad agreed to make a last-ditch appeal for peace there. In other news, several hostages are freed in Iraq, and the Iraqi soccer team continues an unexpected winning streak at the Athens Olympics.

The Iraqi national conference met for the second of three days in Baghdad. The 1,300 religious and political leaders agreed to send a delegation to try to negotiate peace in Najaf, 160 kilometers to the south.

U.S.-led troops again exchanged fire with Shiite militiamen entrenched in and around Najaf's sacred Imam Ali Mosque and an ancient cemetery.

The fighting in Najaf has cast a shadow over the national conference. Some delegates have threatened to walk out unless the crisis is resolved.

A senior delegate to the Iraqi national congress, Hussein al-Sadr proposed sending a peace mission to Najaf.

Mr. Sadr, a distant relative but political opponent of Moqtada al-Sadr, said the goal is to get the radical cleric involved in Iraq's political life. He said this delegation will represent Iraqis from all religions and political persuasions.

Moqtada al-Sadr's spokesman, Ahmed Al-Syabani, welcomed the move.

We open our doors wide for any negotiations, he said, and we are ready for peace in this city and other Iraqi cities.

Meanwhile, a Syrian and two Lebanese hostages taken by unidentified gunmen earlier this month have been freed.

And, in Athens, the Iraqi football team that barely qualified for the Olympics unexpectedly won its second straight game by beating Costa Rica (2-0). They beat Portugal in an earlier surprise victory.

Iraqi Football Association President Hussein Saeed Mohammad said the team's achievements are for the entire country.

"Our players do all the best to give the smile for our people in Iraq," said Mr. Mohammad. "You know there is much fighting in Iraq, and we have a good chance for peace now."

The Iraqi football team next faces Morocco on Wednesday.