Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Moqtada Mania

While any development that halts the violence in Najaf is positive, this truce -- should it hold -- marks the second time that an upsurge in violence caused by al-Sadr loyalists has resulted in gains for the rebel cleric.

The first came last June, after al-Sadr stirred the Iraqi insurgency onto what became the bloodiest two-month period for US forces in the history of the invasion. Then, in agreement for calling an end to the violence plaguing Najaf, al-Sadr received President Bush's blessing to seek political power in the new Iraqi government.

With the formal end of the US-led occupation two weeks away, Mr Sadr issued a statement from his base in Najaf calling on his Mehdi Army militiamen to go home.

"Each of the individuals of the Mehdi Army, the loyalists who made sacrifices ... should return to their governorates to do their duty," he said.

The statement came a day after the US president, George Bush, said America would not oppose a political role for Mr Sadr, whom it had branded an anti-democratic thug only weeks earlier.

Now, come August, al-Sadr is apparently unhappy with the US occupation again, and once more is urging supporters to wreak havoc at the expense of Iraqi and US forces alike.

An Iraqi "peace" delegation met with al-Sadr on Wednesday, and as a result, a muddled truce may or may not have been reached.

A spokesman for rebel leader Moqtada Sadr expressed surprise on Wednesday at threats of an imminent attack on his militia by Iraqi forces, saying the Shiite cleric had agreed to demands made by peace mediators.

We are surprised by the declaration and threat by the minister of defense ... because we have given our full accord to the initiative presented by the delegation, Ahmed Shibani said on Al Jazeera television.

Defence Minister Hazem al-Shaalan vowed that a decisive battle would be launched against Sadr militiamen, who he said must surrender within hours in the central holy city of Najaf, where heavy fighting raged earlier Wednesday.

Shibani said: The delegation came with three demands, including that the Mehdi Army hands (the security of) the old city to the suitable party...and that the Sadr movement participates in the political process.

He added that the Sadr movement was ready to take part in the political process if it is honest.

We discussed these points and 10 other points that had been discussed with (National Security Advisor) Muaffaq al-Rubaie, and our efforts were successful. The delegation went back satisfied, he said.

But the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi was blocking any peaceful resolution of the crisis, he said.

We are ready to meet the delegation anytime...we pledge to (organise) a meeting between Moqtada Sadr and the delegation on the condition of putting an end to the bombardment of the old city of Najaf and the end of the siege, he said.

The fierce fighting has threatened a peace initiative spearheaded by emissaries from Iraq's key national conference, who traveled to the shrine late Tuesday, only to be snubbed by Sadr who said aggression by the Americans had made it unsafe for him to appear.

Rajaa Habib al-Khuzai, a former member of Iraq's former Governing Council, one of those who went to Najaf, said the head of the mission, Sheikh Hussein al-Sadr, would meet Allawi to ask for a ceasefire for a subsequent trip.

Khuzai also told Al Jazeera: All what Shibani said was true. The mediation did not fail. On the contrary, it was a success. The meeting was positive.

She also denounced the threats by the defense minister of an imminent offensive, saying: It is regrettable because there was an agreement this morning.