With explosions outside rattling the windows, some 1,300 Iraqi delegates gathered Sunday in a Baghdad convention center for a three-day conference intended to resume the nation's fitful march toward a secular democracy. At the same time, some 85 miles to the south, Shiite militiamen in Najaf fought to defend cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who envisions a nation run similarly to the theocracy of neighboring Iran.
Events this week put the two opposing visions of Iraq's future in sharp relief. But it's unlikely either will be able to lay claim to much progress as the fighting in Najaf resumes - threatening to overshadow the conference and ignite a wider Shiite insurgency in the country, say analysts.
In fact, the Baghdad meeting got off to a rocky start. Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi told the delegates that "your presence here today is the biggest challenge to the forces of darkness that want to tear this country apart. This is not the end of the road, it is the first step on the way to democracy." The goal is to choose a 100-member assembly, or national council, to oversee the interim executive branch until elections are held in January.
But few outside observers consider this a representative gathering of the Iraqi people. Key players such as Mr. Sadr and the Muslim Clerics Association, an influential grouping of Sunni religious leaders, have boycotted the conference.
Indeed, shortly after Mr. Allawi's opening remarks, Nadim al-Jadari, an official with the Shiite Political Council, threatened to leave the conference unless negotiations were restarted to end the fighting in Najaf.
In an attempt to assuage the complaints, the Associated Press reported that a working committee was formed to find a peaceful solution to the tension in Najaf.
The standoff in Najaf threatens not just the conference but the legitimacy of the Allawi government, say analysts. While most Iraqi Shiites aren't Sadr supporters, anger over the siege at the Shrine of Imam Ali threatens to drive most Iraqi Muslims away from supporting the interim government. Over the weekend, thousands of pro-Sadr demonstrators converged on Najaf and formed a ring around several hundred of Sadr's fighters, who are holed up in the shrine, one of the holiest sites for the world's 180 million Shiite Muslims.
"This is a failed strategy, and it has proved that it's not possible to have security in Iraq without participation of the majority of the populations, the Shias," says Ali Allawi, a political analyst in London.
The more the US has sought to "squeeze" Najaf (as US Secretary of State Colin Powell put it over the weekend), the more militant pressure has been released elsewhere. Sadr forces have clashed with Iraqi and US troops in such cities as Hilla, Kut, Basra, Amara, and others. The risk is that killing or capturing Sadr, and dismantling his Mahdi Army in Najaf, could lead to decentralized minirebellions throughout southern Iraq, in effect creating an ongoing insurgency similar to the atomized Sunni insurgency in central Iraq.
Indeed, the Sunni insurgency lent support to Sadr Sunday in the kind of rare Sunni-Shiite alliance witnessed when insurgents in Fallujah were under siege by US and Iraqi forces last April. During a cease-fire to allow peace talks and the removal of wounded in Najaf over the weekend, a convoy of 40 trucks from Fallujah arrived, bringing food, water, and medicines to the Mahdi Army fighters.
Ghalib Yusuf al-Eisawe, a Sunni preacher from the Al Bouraq Mosque in Fallujah, told reporters, "we brought aid for the people of Najaf, we came here to express real brotherhood for the people of Najaf, and to support the people here." He also mentioned that the Fallujah police department provided protection for the convoy down to Najaf.
Even before the weekend cease-fire in Najaf, the Mahdi Army showed a greater willingness to change tactics to widen the war across the southern part of the country, and against Iraqi, US, and civilian targets inside Baghdad itself. Mahdi Army commanders confirmed attacks against a number of such targets, including the US Embassy, the Ministries of Oil, Finance, Sports and Youth, as well as the Sheraton and Palestine Hotels, where security contractors and journalists live.
"If the Americans continue to attack Najaf, we will make life in Baghdad a living hell," one Mahdi Army commander said in Sadr City, who confirmed that their fighters have begun to use mortar and Katyusha rockets against Iraqi government and civilian targets inside Baghdad.
Hours after the conference opened in Baghdad Sunday, insurgents fired a barrage of mortars that hit a commuter bus station, killing two people and wounding 17 others.
While the US and Allawi's government have said recently trained Iraqi forces would lead any assault in Najaf, Iraqi Army units have performed poorly in counter-insurgency so far. Generally, Iraqi soldiers have been reluctant to fight other Iraqis. Using domestic forces - many Shiites themselves - to mount a long-term siege or even to storm the shrine of Ali will prove a test of their loyalties.
"Allawi needs to take firm action, but that doesn't necessarily mean a raid on the shrine," says Mario Mancuso, a US Army captain who was stationed in Najaf last year. "It probably means something more thoughtful and persistent." He suggests more checkpoints, more cordons, surveillance of the insurgents, psyops, and carefully targeted attacks.
Government negotiator Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie said he planned to leave Najaf after talks with Sadr broke down Saturday. But participants say the negotiations were not entirely fruitless. The government agreed to allow Sadr safe passage to leave the Shrine of Ali. Other Sadr demands included:
• US forces should leave Najaf
• Shiite authorities should control holy shrines.
• Captured Mahdi Army fighters should be released, and supporters should be granted amnesty.
• Electric and water services should be restored to Najaf.
Sadr and his militia's goal is to establish a strict theocratic state in Iraq modeled on the Iranian revolution of Ayatollah Khomeini. Speaking at the shrine on Saturday, Sadr was belligerent after the breakdown in talks. "I am demanding that the people of Iraq in all provinces to call for the immediate resignation of the Iraqi government because it is an imperialistic American government," he said. "We are demanding the occupier to leave our country."
As fighting resumed Sunday in Najaf, journalists were ordered to leave and the streets were vacant. Iraqi police and military snipers could be seen on buildings at most major crossroads and American tanks have moved into position in the northeastern part of town near the Shrine of Ali.
Many of the residents of the Old City, some of whom had returned to their homes during the brief ceasefire, have fled once more. Sadiq Rasool, a government social-services worker from the Old City, visited his home Friday during the ceasefire but decided not to stay. "Some people don't want the peace to remain here," he said. "Whenever we are near a truce, they start shooting somebody to get it started again."
A relative of Mr. Rasool, Ali Yahya, a 10th-grade student, said that the situation is deteriorating in the Old City. "There is no security at all, there's no water, there's no electricity. All the people in the Old City request all sides to stop fighting. But you can see there are Iraqi police posted in their police station, and every time people drive by this police station, you can hear the bullets flying."
Mr. Yahya, whose parents left Lebanon 27 years ago because of the civil war there, now worries that the same thing could happen here. "We left Lebanon because of civil war. Now my father and mother say we're going to see another Lebanon here."