As US forces fought with militia loyal to firebrand Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, group of Iraqi leaders an offer that may hold the best hope of solving the month-long standoff between his Mahdi army militia and the US military.
The deal, offered by tribal and religious leaders without any American input, offers Sadr a chance to save face by giving himself up to Iraqis instead of to American forces.
In exchange, the group will negotiate its own demands with both Sadr and American forces, including withdrawal from Najaf and information about Iraqi prisoners being held by the coalition.
"It's an attempt to solve the legal question, and not just the security question," said Sheikh Fatih Kashif al-Ghitta, a top advisor to Iraqi Governing Council member Salama al-Khafaji. "And to solve it in a way that doesn't humiliate Sayyid Moqtada, that doesn't humiliate the Iraqi people, and that doesn't humiliate the Americans."
Thursday, the US increased pressure on Sadr and his forces in central Iraq. US troops attacked Sadr's militia forces around the Iraqi holy city of Najaf and the nearby town of Kufa. They seized the local governor's offices and killed 41 fighters near Kufa, a senior official in the US authority told Reuters.
At the same time, Paul Bremer, the US administrator of Iraq, appointed a new governor for Najaf and denounced Sadr as an outlaw who used the holy sites to launch his rebellion. US forces have said they will refrain from entering shrines.
"We have resecured the governor's building and we intend to have the governor reoccupy it to have the coalition retake control of the city," a US official told Reuters.
Thursday afternoon, Sadr's Mahdi army militia appeared to be counterattacking, and Lt. Col. Pat White, a US official near Kufa, told CNN: "We are getting contact [attacks] from all sides and we are dealing with it now. I would liken it to a hornets' nest."
The conflict began over a month ago, on March 27, when American coalition forces padlocked Sadr's newspaper, al-Hawza. It escalated on April 5, when US officials announced that they would arrest Sadr on a warrant issued against him by an Iraqi judge months earlier, in the assassination of a rival cleric.
A month ago, a delegation traveled to Najaf to make its proposal to Sadr. It consisted of about 40 people: 25 tribal leaders or sheikhs, five lawyers, five academics, and Dr. Khafaji.
(One of two Shiite women on the Governing Council, Ms. Khafaji participated as a private individual, not as a representative of the US-appointed body, which is viewed by most Iraqis as illegitimate.)
Meeting with Sadr's deputies in his offices in Najaf, the group delivered the following message: if Sadr agrees to the its conditions, the group will negotiate with the American authorities on his behalf. If he agrees, he will not be able to change the details of the deal.
But the group also promises not to compromise on key tenets that provide protection for him.
On May 5, an emissary carried the message to Najaf that Sadr had 10 days - until May 15 - to decide.
The group has not yet formally approached the coalition.
There are several Iraqi groups trying to resolve the standoff in Najaf, but a senior coalition official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the tribal proposal was the most viable prospect for defusing the standoff.
The official said the coalition has not been formally approached by the tribal leaders.
"The Iraqi tribes do have the capability to resolve this situation," the official said. "This has the best chance of succeeding."
The details of the deal are as follows:
• The group will not allow Sadr to be "hurt or humiliated." "You and your family represent an important part of the Iraqi struggle," said Dr. Ghitta, reciting from memory. "You wear the black turban of the Sayyid that represents descent from the prophet, and tradition demands respect for clerics."
• Coalition forces present in Najaf must withdraw, and tribal militias will take their place.
• The group will enter into negotiations with the CPA to find out "what is really happening" to political prisoners and detainees.
• Sadr must agree that "the law must be first and above everything in Iraq."
"Your compliance with this law doesn't mean that you agree with the law," said Ghitta, "but it means that we are all modern people that respect the law."
• Sadr will not be arrested, but will be placed in the custody of Iraqi tribes. When he goes to trial, Iraqi tribal members will escort him to the proceedings
• Najaf has to be free of all militias, and because it's a holy place, it has to be free of all weapons
• The Mahdi Army will become an unarmed political and social organization
• The group promises Sadr that the court "will be made up of fair judges," and offers him the right to approve their names. But he must also agree to abide by the court's decision, no matter what it is.
The plan was originally devised by Khafaji's office and Sheikh Hussein Ali al-Shaalan, head of the Baghdad-based Iraqi National Council of Tribes.
The federation of 25 tribes headed by Shaalan includes all the major tribes in southern Iraq, from Basra to Karbala (and even some of Baghdad's outskirts). Together, those 25 tribes have about 2 million members. "Moqtada realizes the power of the tribes," said the senior coalition official. "If the tribes have united against him, then he should realize that it's not just the coalition that's against him."
Coalition officials don't know the exact details of the plan, but are aware of its broad outlines. They say two main demands are not negotiable: That Sadr must stand trial and be judged by Iraqis, and that the Mahdi Army must disarm.
The group says they will not approach the Americans unless Sadr agrees to their conditions. "We're not acting as intermediaries," said Ghitta. "We want him to agree. If he agrees, then we will go to the Americans, not with a proposal, but with a demand from the Iraqi people."
If Sadr agrees to the conditions of the proposal, said Khafaji, placing her hand on her heart, then "we will have his problem as ours."
She reiterated the May 15 deadline. "And after that," said Ghitta, "he will be free, and we will be free."
"There are 100 heads of tribes, many with 50 or 60,000 members each, who are now waiting," said Ghitta. "But they are not going to be waiting forever to see what Moqtada says. And the lawyers and the judges will not just be waiting. And the Americans will not wait either."