US closes in on deal with Iraqi cleric

Despite battles in two cities Monday, officials say talks are under way to turn Moqtada al-Sadr's army into a political group.

As fighting between Shiite militiamen and US-led coalition forces continued Monday, the outline of a Fallujah-like solution began to emerge.

The death toll rose in Baghdad and Kufa as the Mahdi Army of militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr battled US troops. But behind the scenes, direct negotiations were under way to transform Sadr's militia into a political entity and end a violent rebellion.

The coalition has declared repeatedly that it will not negotiate with "militias and criminals." Nonetheless, a deal may be forthcoming with Sadr, said an official close to the talks. The coalition has previously said it wanted the cleric killed or captured.

If the deal pans out, it could bring to an end the seven-week conflict. The hope is that by engaging Sadr politically, the coalition can neutralize him militarily. His militia might also eventually be integrated into the Iraqi national security forces.

Such an accord would reverse previously held coalition strategies - much as happened in Fallujah. In that Iraqi city, the scene of intense fighting in April, militia including many of the same insurgents who were fighting the Marines are now in charge of keeping the peace.

For the coalition, ending the Sadr rebellion before the June 30 handover is critical to a proper transfer of power. As long as the fighting continues, Iraqi security forces will not have hold over the cities underscoring the fact that the coalition and not Iraqis are essentially in control of security.

As early as Tuesday, two representatives from Sadr's office will meet with two representatives of Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq, says Adnan Ali, the head of the political bureau of the Dawa Party.

"If everything goes smoothly there will be an announcement between the two rivals within 24 hours," says Mr. Ali, who is also an aide of Governing Council member, Ibrahim al-Jaffari. Dr. Jaffari is one of the Governing Council members involved in the negotiations who also aspires to be part of the interim government after June 30.

The four-point agreement, which has already been agreed to by Sadr, according to Ali, calls for the Mahdi Army to become an unarmed political movement and requires the Mahdi Army to return all government property - such as police cars, buildings, and guns - to the state. Coalition forces agree to pull out of the holy cities immediately. The possible accord also obligates Sadr to be tried by an Iraqi court if he is asked to do so after the transfer of authority June 30th.

Iraqis say the negotiations offered the only possible hope of ending the fighting. "The military solution is not acceptable to the Iraqis. Not here and not in Fallujah," says Mohammed Fitnan, a Karbala resident close to the negotiations.

Sadr turned to violence in April, when his newspaper was closed by US troops and one of his closest aides was arrested. The coalition responded with force.

Local pressure

Karbala has already seen the results of local negotiations, partly due to local pressure. Last Tuesday, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has preferred not to take sides in the conflict, called on residents of the two holy cities of Karbala and Najaf to protest against the presence of any armed force in the towns.

By Thursday, local leaders of Karbala were meeting with coalition officers at their base nearby, according to Mr. Fitnan. The Karbalans told the coalition the Mahdi Army would leave if the coalition pulled out.

By Friday morning, US soldiers were nowhere to be seen. After Friday prayers, residents took to the streets with banners saying, "Karbala is a city of peace." They were protected by the Badr Brigade, the militia of Abdul Aziz Hakim's Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

The Karbalans were spurred not only by concern for the holy shrine of Imam Hussein, but also for their own safety. Their city saw the worst fighting since the Marines operation in Fallujah. People had stopped going to work, children missed their end-of-year exams, and business from trade had halted.

Karbalans essentially told Mahdi Army fighters that if they fought the Americans, they could not do so in the city.

The Mahdi Army got the message. By Saturday, the militants had taken off their headbands and were looking for rides back to their hometowns. Most of them were not from Karbala.

A strong beginning

Sadr's rebellion was initially popular with many Iraqis because it was anticoalition. Sadr called his followers to arms in April and for the first time since it was formed last July, the Mahdi Army was no longer a symbolic force, made up of names on a roster.

Instead, it took over police stations in a show of force that was supported by many.

But, with time the lawlessness that abounded and the intense fighting turned local citizens against the volunteer fighters. Seven weeks on, the local populations are eager to get rid of the "foreigners" in their midst.

Karbala is now peaceful. People have returned to their homes in the center of town and are cleaning out the debris from damaged shops. Monday, children began taking their annual final exams. US forces patrolled the streets of Karbala. Soldiers also talked with residents about reconstruction projects.

Now the Mahdi Army appears willing to leave cities where it is fighting coalition soldiers and allow Iraqi police to have control - as long as the coalition leaves.

Despite negotiations over a potential deal, violence continued. In Baghdad's Sadr City, 39 Iraqis were killed between Sunday night and Monday night, and in Kufa, 32 were killed Saturday night during clashes with US forces. In Baghdad Monday, a car bomb just outside coalition headquarters killed two British civilians.

Until the deal is done, Sadr and his aides are still technically wanted men. Last Friday, Sadr's closest aide, Mohammed Tabtabai, was arrested and his driver was killed by US forces near Kufa. Some say the soldiers thought it might be Sadr.

What remains unclear is if Sadr himself will be able to implement an agreement. His top aides have been arrested - leaving only young angry men behind them to make the decisions on the ground.

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