The radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr appeared last night to have accepted an ultimatum by the Iraqi government to end his insurgency and disarm his Mahdi army militia.

But confusion surrounded his terms for acceptance and there were indications that his offer may have come too late to stave off a military assault on the sacred Imam Ali shrine in Najaf. It is occupied by him and the Mahdi army but surrounded by American tanks.

Under the terms of the deal offered to Sadr, the Mahdi army would disarm and disband to reform as a political party ahead of elections planned for January.

Sadr, who had refused to meet the delegation, is understood to have asked US marines to withdraw from Najaf first - a demand that would be treated as a ruse by American commanders. Earlier yesterday the hawkish defence minister, Hazem Shaalan, warned the Mahdi army to leave the shrine within hours or face attack.

The government, keenly aware that an American assault on the mosque, one of the most sacred in Shia Islam, could infuriate moderate members of the country’s largest community, has said Iraq’s security forces rather than the Americans would storm the shrine. But US military weight would almost certainly assist.~ The Daily Telegraph, August 19, 2004

At every stage the interim government and the U.S. have seemed intent on creating a crisis with radical Shi’is where none needed to have existed. If the erstwhile mission of our soldiers in Iraq is now to achieve some modicum of stability for a transition to some kind of real, native Iraqi government, it makes little sense to sabotage that larger mission to make an example of this little man, al-Sadr, especially if he is on the verge of submitting. It has been the effort to make an example of him that is very nearly in danger of detonating the entire political process, just as the effort to make an example of him in April blew up in the face of the proconsul, Paul Bremer.