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Iraqi Political Conference Chooses National Council - 2004-08-18

A firebrand Iraqi Islamic cleric is reported to have agreed to withdraw his armed militia from around the city of Najaf. The news came as a conference chose a national council to oversee the workings of the Iraqi interim government.

Moqtada al-Sadr agreed Wednesday to withdraw his militia from Najaf, where they have been battling U.S. troops and their Iraqi government allies.

Hussein al-Sadr, a relative of the Shi'ite cleric, told reporters that his cousin will withdraw from fortified positions around the sacred Islamic shrines in Najaf in return for amnesty for him and his followers.

However, there were still unresolved questions about whether he has laid down additional conditions. Some reports quote aides to the cleric as saying that he will withdraw his forces only after the U.S.-led force around Najaf is pulled back.

The conference greeted news of the agreement with relief.

Mr. al-Sadr has been waging an intense armed campaign against the U.S. presence in Iraq. His followers call themselves the "Mahdi Army."

Mr. al-Sadr agreed to a truce with U.S. forces in early June but fighting resumed August 5. The insurgents took up positions around the Shrine of Imam Ali, one of the holiest spots in Shia Islam, thus making it difficult for U.S. forces to attack them directly. Iraq's interim defense minister had threatened to launch an all-out assault to crush the uprising.

The crisis cast a pall over deliberations for a new interim national assembly. The Baghdad political conference sent an eight-man delegation to Najaf to talk to Moqtada al-Sadr on Tuesday, but the group was unable to meet the Shi'ite cleric.

On the political front, conference delegates agreed after sometimes bitter wrangling on a slate of government-backed candidates to make up the 100-member national council. The council will oversee the work of the interim government until elections early next year. It will have the power to veto legislation with a two-thirds majority and approve the 2005 government budget.

In other developments, at least five civilians were killed and 10 wounded in an early afternoon mortar attack Wednesday in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. In eastern Baghdad, an American soldier was shot and killed while on patrol.