A Shiite uprising which swept southern Iraq for the past seven weeks, and boosted rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's popularity nationwide, now appears over. Thursday a Fallujah-like deal was struck in the holy cities of Najaf and Kufa, where Mr. Sadr's militiamen had fought for days against US-led coalition forces.
As part of the four-point agreement, US forces halted military operations against Sadr's Mahdi Army late Wednesday night. But sporadic fighting continued in the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City in Baghdad.
Thursday, Sadr's men were seen packing cars and pickup trucks and leaving Najaf. The US military has agreed to hand over responsibility for security in the city to the local Iraqi police.
"As soon as the Iraqi security forces have assumed responsibility for public security and reestablished law and order, coalition forces will reposition to their bases outside Najaf, while maintaining protective units at the CPA offices and the governorate building and Iraqi police stations," coalition spokesman Dan Senor said in Baghdad.
Although the coalition has not formally agreed not to arrest or kill Sadr, Iraq's National Security Adviser says he is confident the coalition will abide by the accord. "[The coalition authorities] gave the talks their blessing and have promised to respect the agreement," Muwaffaq al-Rubaie told a Baghdad news conference.
The negotiated end to the fighting is evidence of a new approach by the US-led coalition to quell violent insurgencies: Iraqi-led dealmaking. As in Fallujah, where the coalition decided to make a peace deal with the insurgent fighters occupying the town west of Baghdad, the coalition appears to have now tacitly agreed not to touch the man it wanted dead or alive. It also allowed the Mahdi Army fighters to leave the cities without being detained along the way.
Analysts say the approach, five weeks before the June 30 handover of power, shows that the US-led coalition is eager to have Iraqi security forces in control of the cities, and is ready to try new methods. Increasingly, the coalition is turning to local tribal and religious leaders to intervene and negotiate with insurgents, and US-appointed Iraqi politicians have become integral to the negotiation process, as well.
Dr. Ibrahim al-Jaffari, a Governing Council member who is on the short list of candidates for prime minister in the interim government, was a crucial broker in the sensitive negotiations between the offices of the coalition administrator, Paul Bremer, and Sadr. Mr. Rubaie was also involved, and on Wednesday two governing council members, Abdul Karim al-Mohammadawi and Salama al-Khufaji, traveled to Najaf to stage a sit-in until the crisis was solved, their aides told Reuters.
The uprising in predominantly Shiite southern Iraq, started in April as a reaction to the closing of a Sadr-backed newspaper and the arrest of a top Sadr aide. It gathered momentum, coinciding with a mostly Sunni uprising in Fallujah. At Friday prayers, Sadr called the uprising a fight for Iraqi freedom. Mahdi Army forces took over police stations and government office buildings in several cities. With time, residents of the holy cities of Karbala, Najaf, and Kufa grew angry with the militiamen whose fighting disrupted their businesses, education, and lives.
Yet, it remains to be seen if the Fallujah-like negotiations will carry over into Sadr City. Last week a truce was struck by local leaders between the Sadr City Mahdi Army fighters and the US 1st Cavalry Division, which patrols this poor section of the capital. But last Friday the truce failed and heavy fighting broke out in the streets. Both sides blamed the other for breaking it and sporadic clashes have continued since then.
Some here are concerned that the fighters in Najaf and Kufa will return to their homes in Sadr City, and continue to fight.
"If Al-Sadr says no more fighting we will lay down our arms," says Sayyed Hashem Mussawi, a 23-year old member of the Mahdi Army in Sadr City. "But if they come to make us angry we will resist them."
But, by and large, the Mahdi Army appears to have lost its momentum, due to local intervention. In Sadr City, the Mahdi Army men say, they will battle US forces only if they are drawn into a fight.
"We have offices everywhere and if the Americans want to do it the right way they'll walk through the door," says Mr. Mussawi. "But if they attack us, we will respond to their attacks."
Yet Mussawi says he's hopeful of peace in his city. "There will be no withdrawal from Sadr City," he pointed out, "because it's our hometown.
"But if a truce is really signed in Najaf, the next truce will be in Sadr City."