Truce in Najaf

Moktada al-Sadr and the U.S. both withdraw from Najaf. But is the rebel cleric the real winner?

| Fri May. 28, 2004 12:00 AM PDT

The rebel Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr -- whose Mahdi Army has been battling U.S. troops for almost two months -- may come out the winner in a deal reached by Shiite religious and political leaders by which U.S. and Sadr's troops will pull out out of the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Kufa.

The U.S., which says the truce does not represent a change in policy, insists that Sadr turn himself in to face charges for the murder of a rival cleric and that his militia be disbanded; but the U.S. didn't make these preconditions for the conclusion of the truce. The future Iraqi interim government, meanwhile, may be inclined to drop the charges against Sadr and work to integrate his militia -- which is said to number roughly 10,000 fighters -- into the country's security forces.

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When asked about the possibility of a political future for Sadr. Iraq's national security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie said:

"I do not see any reason that prevents any political movement that uses democratic means and political activities from being part of the Iraqi state and from participating in the building of Iraq."

Sadr has made overtures to the U.S. to end the fighting several times, but the stakes have gotten higher for both sides in recent weeks. The religious leader of the Iraqi Shiite community, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has called for all combatants -- be they American soldiers, Iraqi militants, or foreign fighters -- to withdraw from Najaf, where the city's holiest site, the Imam Ali mosque, has sustained minor damage as a result of the fighting. Sadr blames the Americans for the damage and vice versa.

While Sadr claimed that the truce stemmed from his desire to prevent further damage from holy sites -- which Americans accuse his militants of using as shields and where munitions caches have been recovered -- Sadr's decision stemmed from more earthy considerations. For one, Sadr's forces have sustained heavy casualties and one of his key commanders -- also his brother-in-law -- has been captured this week. The damage to religious sites has undercut Sadr's own authority, since it is widely understood that the actions of his militias made holy sites military targets. Morale among many of his fighters is dwindling after the mounting casualties and the disruption of trade and services in Najaf. Under the terms of the truce, the non-native militants will withdraw from the city, while the rest are expected to reintegrate back to civilian life. As Joost Hiltermann of the think-tank International Crisis Group told the BBC: "As they aren't a real army there is nothing to disband. What they are likely to do is just melt away, they will go back to their homes and their jobs and just keep their guns with them."

The U.S. certainly hopes so, though neither it nor the Sadr militia trust each other enough to conduct the negotiations directly -- a smart political calculation on both of their parts: Sadr has gotten himself out of a military confrontation in Najaf that he was bound to lose, but his men in Baghdad and elsewhere have yet to lay down their arms, and he can continue to present himself as the man who stood up to the American occupation. Asad Turki Swari, the spokesman for al-Sadr in Baghdad's western Al-Karkh district told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that:

"The demand of Muqtada [al-Sadr] is clear, that [the Americans] leave the city, release prisoners, especially the students of Al-Hawza [the Shi'a religious establishment], stop attacking our holy places and stop degrading Muslims, and have free and honest elections with the supervision of the Islamic organization [Organization of the Islamic Conference] and the Arab League, and to ensure freedom of speech and not confront people with bullets, as Saddam [Hussein] used to do."

The U.S. will no doubt continue to insist that Sadr must be brought to justice, but it will leave the new Iraqi government to either fulfill or abandon that thankless task. Meanwhile, the White House can point to truce as evidence that it does have a plan in Iraq and that sovereignty is already being transferred to the Iraqis. After all, it was Iraqi politicians and religious leaders who reached the agreement, and it will be Iraqi security forces who will be patrolling the streets of Najaf. As Dan Senor, senior advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority, told journalists:

"We view this as a very positive step not only for the moment but for what it bodes potentially for Iraq post-June 30th, because what we're seeing here are Iraqis stepping forward and engaging Muqtada al- Sadr to try and reach a peaceful resolution."

The precedent for the Najaf deal is of course the U.S. pullout in Fallujah earlier this month, where the Iraqi Army is now in charge of security. The deputy commander of U.S. forces in Iraq General Mark Kimmitt pointed to the success of the Fallujah as a model for Najaf, but it is doubtful that he really wants to see a repeat of what happened in Fallujah -- one of the strongholds of Sunni opposition -- after the U.S. troops left. The Islamist hardliners are far more in charge in that city than the U.S would like to admit. As the Associated Press reports:

"With U.S. Marines gone and central government authority virtually nonexistent, Fallujah resembles an Islamic mini-state -- anyone caught selling alcohol is flogged and paraded in the city. Men are encouraged to grow beards and barbers are warned against giving 'Western' hair cuts."

This is not a scenario that bodes well for the secular, democratic Iraq that the U.S. hopes will emerge from the country's national elections next year. The U.S. pullout in Fallujah and Najaf certainly prevented what would have been much longer and deadlier confrontations with the militants, but what has been left in place is far from clear. Having branded Sadr a murderer -- though not until it waited almost year to issue the warrant for his arrest -- and a "thug," the U.S. can hardly advocate the integration of the rebel cleric into the country's political life. This week's truce, however, suggests that there may be a political future for Sadr in the new Iraq and that the U.S. -- albeit reluctantly -- seems resigned to that prospect.

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