Nine political parties have agreed to dissolve their militias as part of a plan to integrate most fighters into the new Iraqi security forces. The move could be a significant breakthrough in achieving stability, say analysts, when the new Iraqi government takes control on June 30.
Excluded from the deal, however, is the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that has been engaged in fierce clashes with American forces in Baghdad and southern Iraq since the beginning of April.
Ayad Allawi, Iraq's new prime minister, announced Monday that negotiations had been completed to dismantle the militias and integrate some 102,000 militiamen into civilian life or the Iraqi Army, the Iraqi police, or the internal security forces of the Kurdish Regional Government, the semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq. Among the militias included in the arrangement are those of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), whose Peshmerga forces have a combined strength of about 75,000. The Badr Brigades, the military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, fields some 15,000 fighters. The Iraqi National Congress headed by Ahmed Chalabi; the Iraqi National Accord, led by Mr. Allawi; and the Dawa party, Iraq's oldest Shiite organization, have already dismantled their military wings, according to a senior coalition official. The remaining 12,000 militiamen are drawn from the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi Communist Party, and Iraqi Hizbullah.
Fighters belonging to the nine parties, and any other militias that choose to join the process will be described as "residual elements," a legal term to differentiate them from militiamen who remain outside the law. The nine militias fought Saddam Hussein's regime and therefore are being accorded the same treatment as Iraqi Army veterans.
"To reward former resistance fighters for their service, opportunities have been created for them to join state security services or lay down their arms and enter civilian life," Allawi said in a statement.
"By doing this, we reward their heroism and sacrifices, while making Iraq stronger and eliminating armed forces outside government control," he added.
Saad Jawad, a professor of politics at Baghdad University, says the deal is "very good news" and a "breakthrough for Ayad Allawi if he can really do it."
"The question is whether he can see it through," he says, voicing doubts about the commitment of the two Kurdish parties to dissolve their militias.
Furthermore, Associated Press reported that officials from the Badr Brigades were claiming that negotiations to dissolve the militia had not begun, contrary to Allawi's statement.
"The other problem is one of loyalty and allegiance," Professor Jawad says. "To whom are they going to owe allegiance? The Iraqi Army or their political leaders?"
The coalition outlawed all militias last summer and demanded that they disarm by mid-September. But the decree was ignored, with party leaders citing the deteriorating security situation as a reason to keep their fighters armed.
Analysts believe that the reason why those same leaders have yielded now is due to Allawi's strong security credentials. He handled the internal security portfolio as a member of the now-defunct interim Governing Council.
"I imagine that Allawi was already brokering this arrangement in the Governing Council and that one of the reasons why the independent council members liked him [as candidate for prime minister] is because he already had these security plans," says Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and an expert on Iraq affairs.
A $200 million program run by the ministry of Labor and Social Affairs will retrain and integrate some 60 percent of the ex-militiamen into the new Iraqi security forces and help the rest return to civilian life. The program will also provide pensions for ex-militiamen, the sum depending on the length of service as a resistance fighter.
Although the largest militias in Iraq are included in the deal, coalition officials say the door is being left open for some smaller groups who may still be unaware of the arrangement. But a senior coalition official says it is unlikely that Sadr's Mahdi Army would participate.
"It's quite clear that that particular organization is trying to shoot its way into politics and we didn't feel we should reach out to that group, which wants to stay out of the process," the official says.
For the past two months, the Mahdi militia has fought US troops in Baghdad and the Shiite shrine cities of Najaf, Karbala, and Kufa.
While intermittent clashes have continued in Sadr City, a Shiite slum in eastern Baghdad, a tentative cease-fire appears to have taken hold over the past two days in the shrine cities after Sadr agreed to withdraw his fighters.
The agreement to disband the militias would appear to leave Sadr with few options. Disregarding the arrangement will leave him in the lonely position of few allies and at odds with the US-led coalition forces and the new government. But abiding by the deal could give him a face- saving way of entering the political mainstream.
"It can give Moqtada Sadr an outlet to his problem," says Jawad. "If all the other groups accept, then he can do the same and save himself the trouble of being alone." Sadr officials refused to comment Monday on the militia arrangement, but the sentiment being aired in the movement's office in Sadr City was one of defiance.
"Moqtada Sadr rejects Ayad Allawi and the new government," says a cleric who declines to give his name. "If Allawi forbids the Army of the Mahdi from building the new Iraq, then he is nothing more than an American."
Another man says he takes pride in the exclusion of the Mahdi Army and "the resistors of Fallujah," a reference to insurgents in the flash-point town, west of Baghdad.
Still, Professor Cole says, the Mahdi is not a militia comparable to the nine that are to disband. Instead, it is little more than a "ghetto force" of ill-trained youths who "answer to Sadr's call."
"I should think that poor Shiites will form the backbone of the new Iraqi Army," he says. "So the best way to deal with Sadr is to draw off these forces into the Army rather than confront them directly."