BAGHDAD, Iraq – Top followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search) rejected an invitation Wednesday to join a national conference that will select a council to advise Iraq's interim government.
Fouad Masoum, who heads a committee tasked to convene the 1,000-member conference next month, said al-Sadr's followers were invited to attend the session, which is supposed to bring together Iraq's varied ethnic and religious groups.
An al-Sadr spokesman said the cleric declined to participate because his movement has thousands of followers but was only offered one seat at the July conference, which is supposed to discuss Iraq's challenges and its political future as well as select a 100-member National Council.
"We are a popular movement among the Iraqi people yet we are only offered one seat," Ahmed al-Shibani said. "There are some people given a seat who only represent themselves."
Masoum, of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (search), said al-Sadr himself was not invited. The Iraqi government holds an outstanding warrant for his arrest in the killing of a rival cleric last year.
Al-Sadr and his al-Mahdi militia had been locked since April in an armed standoff with U.S. troops in the south-central city of Najaf until an agreement hammered out by Shiite leaders took fighters off the streets. U.S. forces handed many of their security duties to Iraqi police and the city has been relatively calm.
Al-Sadr appears to be enjoying a surge in popularity among Iraqis, but he would still be a distant finisher in an election for Iraqi president, according to a recent survey by the U.S.-led occupation authority.
U.S. occupation officials have fashioned a law that bans militia leaders like al-Sadr from participating in government. Even if his al-Mahdi Army (search) were to disband, al-Sadr would face a three-year ban on running for public office and would have to quash the arrest warrant.
Still, U.S. civilian and military officials have floated ideas about offering al-Sadr's followers various roles in Iraqi society, including jobs within the police or civil defense forces.