Aljazeera has learnt that a letter has been sent to Baghdad from al-Sadr's office in Najaf, confirming his willingness to accept conditions set out by the Iraqi National Conference meeting in the capital.

A member of the Iraqi National Conference, Sadiq al-Musawi, confirmed the letter had been received. He told Aljazeera the peace plan would be implemented by the incoming transitional National Council - a body due to be elected by the conference to advise the interim government.

But al-Sadr's political liaison officer, Ali al-Yassiri, has been quoted as saying the Shia leader's militia would withdraw from Najaf "for the sake of Iraq" only if US and government forces first ceased fire.

Al-Sadr aide Ahmad al-Shaibani
insists a deal has been reached

The announcement of the offer on Wednesday followed an ultimatum from Defence Minister Hazim al-Shaalan that al-Sadr's al-Mahdi Army surrender or be taught "a lesson" in battle.

But al-Sadr's spokesman in Najaf, Ahmad al-Shaibani, told Aljazeera that he was surprised by threats from the interim defence minister, because al-Sadr had already agreed to proposals to end the fighting.

Key issues

Al-Shaibani said the peace plan to end the Najaf standoff rested on three key points.

  • Al-Mahdi army hands over the Old City to a responsible, honest party.
  • The al-Sadr movement participates in the political process.
  • Other issues discussed with the national security adviser, Muwaffaq al-Rubai.

"Our leader al-Sadr is ready to meet the delegation when the security situation gets better, where the bombing stops and the siege is lifted," al-Shaibani told Aljazeera.

Al-Shaibani said al-Sadr’s organisation was ready to take part in the political process "if it is honest".

"We discussed these points and 10 other points with Muwaffaq al-Rubai, and our efforts were successful. The delegation went back satisfied," he said.

Ultimatum

Earlier, US troops backed by helicopter gunships pounded parts of Najaf's historic Old City before al-Shaalan offered rebels a last chance to surrender or be crushed.

"The coming hours will be decisive and we will teach them a lesson they will never forget"

Hazim al-Shaalan,
interim defence minister 

"The coming hours will be decisive and we will teach them a lesson they will never forget," al-Shaalan told reporters on a visit to Najaf, accompanied by provincial governor Adnan al-Zurfi.

"In the coming hours they must surrender", al-Shaalan said.

"Only Iraqis will enter the mausoleum. There will not be an American intervention" inside the shrine, al-Shaalan said. He said Iraqi commanders would be in charge of the operation.

Earlier, his US counterpart Donald Rumsfeld said US troops were "unlikely" to storm the revered site, which risked devastating consequences of backlash across Iraq.

Aborted talks

Al-Shaibani said Tuesday's meeting between al-Sadr's representatives and delegates from the national conference had ended abruptly because of worsening security conditions. 

US-installed Premier Iyad Allawi
is accused of blocking a deal

"The delegation wanted to meet with al-Sadr, but US helicopters supported by military vehicles bombarding Najaf were the reason behind the cancellation," he said. 

The government of US-appointed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi had been blocking a peaceful resolution of the crisis, he claimed.

"The Iraqi National Conference delegation to Najaf tried on Wednesday to convince the Iraqi prime minister to stop the bombing of Najaf so it could come back to the city and meet al-Sadr," al-Shaibani said.

"We (the al-Sadr movement) are surprised as we have agreed to the delegation's initiative, but Allawi's government is standing in the way," he said.