Truce in Najaf

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


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.

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.