BAGHDAD – U.S. diplomats and military officers have held talks with members of the armed movement loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, a sharp reversal of previous policy and a grudging recognition that the radical Shiite cleric holds a dominant position in much of Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.
The secret dialogue has gone on since at least early 2006, but appeared to yield a tangible result only in the past week – a relative calm in an area of western Baghdad that has been among the capital’s most dangerous regions.
Talks have been complicated by the movement’s internal divisions as well as the cleric’s public vow never to meet with Iraq’s occupiers. Underlying the issue’s sensitivity, Sadrists publicly deny any contact with the Americans or British – fully aware the price of acknowledging such meetings would be banishment from the movement or worse.
The dialogue represents a drastic turnaround in the U.S. approach to al-Sadr and the militia loyal to him, the Mahdi Army. The talks seek to produce the same kind of marriage of convenience the military has reached across central Iraq with insurgent groups and Sunni tribes, many of whom once were prime supporters of Saddam Hussein. Both efforts are examples of how U.S. officials have sought to calm parts of Iraq by cooperating with groups they once considered untouchable.
Sunni militants cooperated in large part because they needed American help to battle militants aligned with al-Qaida in Iraq. By contrast, the Sadrists have yet to decide they want a clear break from their more radical and lawless elements.
In 2004, U.S. officials branded al-Sadr an outlaw and demanded his arrest, sparking two major Shiite revolts in Baghdad and southern Iraq that left hundreds dead in the shrine city of Najaf. Last year, as the Bush administration developed its “surge” strategy, military planners said the offensive would target Mahdi Army fighters involved in sectarian killings. American commanders later accused Iranian-backed elements of the Mahdi Army of being responsible for deadly bomb attacks against U.S. forces and of spearheading sectarian violence.
U.S. officials say they now feel they have no choice but to talk with the militia. Despite internal rifts, al-Sadr’s movement widely is seen as the most powerful force in Baghdad. The Mahdi Army’s grip is absolute in most of the capital’s Shiite neighborhoods, where it sells fuel and electricity and rents out houses, and it has reached deep inside the army and police. U.S. soldiers have marveled at the movement’s ability to generate new leaders to replace almost every fighter they lock up.
American officials fear that failure to come to a political compromise with the Sadrists could resign the country to an even darker fate once U.S. forces begin to pull back.
“If there are no American troops and there is no American deal, the Mahdi Army seizes control of Baghdad. That’s the vision. It’s not a pleasant vision. It’s a really bad vision. In situations like this, the most extreme elements tend to predominate,” said a U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The White House is keen for a breakthrough. “There’s a part of the Sadrist camp that is extremist and dedicated to killing us, and we need to kill them instead. But there are others who we think we might be able to work with,” said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Contacts with al-Sadr’s followers have ranged from clandestine meetings with U.S. embassy officials in the fortress-like Green Zone to encounters on the street between low-level militia commanders and U.S. captains.
This month’s breakthrough came when Lt. Col. Patrick Frank, the U.S. officer responsible for western Baghdad’s dangerous Bayaa, Jihad and Ammal neighborhoods, met at Camp Falcon with tribal leaders who belonged to the Mahdi Army.
To preserve the movement’s posture of not negotiating with Americans, the militia members did not openly discuss their affiliation, but their identity was well-known.
The effort at talks began when moderate Sadrists involved in the Mahdi Army’s social-service network contacted U.S. forces through intermediaries, Frank said. The region was largely Sunni until the Mahdi Army began driving out Sunni residents and replacing them with Shiites last year. In the aftermath, locals grew unhappy that their neighborhood was the stage for shootouts and bombings. Some Sadrists started passing tips to the Americans on militants involved in crimes.
An opening for more wide-ranging talks came with al-Sadr’s announcement nearly two weeks ago that his militia would halt operations for six months.
That cease-fire was in response to fighting between al- Sadr’s followers and other Shiite factions in the shrine city of Karbala that left 52 dead.
“Once Muqtada al-Sadr issued his call for six months of nonviolence, we thought that went hand in hand with the initiative we were attempting to start,” Frank said.
When the meeting came, Frank proposed that the Sadrists stop attacks for two weeks. In exchange, he said the Americans would consider reducing their raids in the district. The al-Sadr representatives relayed the plan back to Mahdi Army brigade and company commanders, and violence has now dropped for a week, the commander said.