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Iraq Official Demands Militia Leave Najaf After al-Sadr Agreement on Pullout - 2004-08-18

Delegates at a national conference in Iraq say radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has agreed to disarm and withdraw his militia from a sacred shrine in the holy city of Najaf.

Iraq's Defense Ministry says followers of al-Sadr must disarm and leave Najaf now that the radical Shi'ite cleric has agreed to end the uprising there.

Also during the fourth day of the meeting, delegates named a new national council to oversee the interim government.

Conference delegates say Moqtada al-Sadr sent word from Najaf to his own office in Baghdad, which then sent a letter to the conference.

Wild applause greeted the announcement as conference organizer Safiya al-Suhail read the letter aloud.

"We have received a letter from the office of Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf, which says he has agreed to the conditions set by the national conference," she said.

Those conditions include laying down his weapons and pulling his militia, the Mahdi Army, out of the Shrine of Imam Ali in exchange for amnesty, and turning the Mahdi Army into a political party. The letter went on to ask the conference and the interim government to keep their end of the deal.

Earlier in the day, the Iraqi interim defense minister had given the Mahdi Army just hours to surrender, or he said Iraqi troops would, in his words, teach them a lesson they will not forget.

The Najaf issue has overshadowed other business since the national conference began Sunday. The meeting was extended for a fourth day after the eight-person delegation traveled to Najaf in a bid to end the uprising.

The emissaries returned without having met Mr. al-Sadr, but said they still considered the trip a success.

The national conference has been chaotic from the start. After repeated delays, delegates have finally started their main task, the complicated process of choosing the National Council to oversee the interim government.

A conference organizer read the names of candidates for the national council. One by one, they rose from their seats and walked to the front of the room, until 81 people were standing on the stage.

The national council must represent every political party, every religious and ethnic group, and all 18 provinces. At least one-quarter of the members must be women.

That requirement forced yet another delay, as both proposed slates were disqualified because they did not have enough women on them. The people who proposed those lists were given a chance to re-do them and try to meet the criteria.

But that delay was followed by another, as several delegates threatened to walk out protesting what they called the under-representation of the provinces. Tempers have run high throughout the day, and at one point two delegates got into a shoving match in the area reserved for news media.

The conference ended without a single vote being cast. One of the two lists was withdrawn and the remaining one was adopted by default.