In the face of renewed fighting with the militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, Iraq's prime minister has embarked on a risky strategy for neutralizing one of the biggest challenges his interim government has faced since taking nominal control of Iraq at the end of June.
Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is extending a tentative olive branch to Sadr, indicating a political role will be found for the renegade cleric if he convinces his militia to lay down their arms and quit Najaf. On the other side of the equation, he announced the return of the death penalty and left an implied threat of crushing the militia with US forces if Sadr doesn't comply.
On Saturday, Allawi declared a broad amnesty for low-level criminals and those assisting the insurgency, and welcomed militant Shiite Muslim leaders such as Sadr to take part in January elections. "I believe gunmen should leave the holy sites ... quickly, lay down their weapons and return to the rule of order and law," Mr. Allawi said in a brief visit to Najaf Sunday. He did not meet with Sadr or any of his aides. But with signs of continued defiance from Sadr's camp, Allawi also runs the risk of losing the initiative in a war that is as much about propaganda as it is about military force. Though Sadr's militia is no match for the US military, his men are dug in around one of the holiest shrines in Shia Islam and mixed among civilians. A full crackdown therefore runs the risk of large civilian casualties and blowback throughout Iraq.
Allawi "doesn't have the indigenous forces sufficient to do what's required to root Sadr out of Najaf's city center. For an Iraqi politician to go into the holiest city in Shia Islam with US or multinational forces would be a gift [to Sadr]," says Mario Mancuso, a US Army captain who did political liaison work in Najaf last year. He was reached by phone in Washington, where he now works as a private-sector lawyer.
As a US-installed leader and former CIA operative, Allawi is viewed with suspicion by many Iraqis. Sadr has repeatedly attacked Allawi's legitimacy.
Also Saturday, Allawi ordered a punitive one-month shutdown of the Arab satellite news network Al Jazeera for "inciting hatred," something that is also being painted by his opponents as evidence of his closeness to the US. Al Jazeera has frequently been attacked by US officials for allegedly biased coverage in Iraq.
Sadr spokesman Hazim al-Araji told Al Jazeera that the Mahdi Army remains committed to its positions in Najaf, and dismissed Allawi as untrustworthy. "He first praised al-Sadr but then called his followers 'terrorists,' " Mr. Araji said. "The Shia authorities have not ordered us to leave Najaf. On the contrary, we received reports stating they are satisfied with the current situation."
As Sadr's profile has risen again, Iraq's most respected Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani left Iraq Friday for the first time in years. His aides said he was seeking treatment in Britain for a heart condition. Ayatollah Sistani, while no ally of the US, has avoided making any directly anti-American statements and has often proven a steadying presence for Iraq's volatile Shiite community.
He also has barely concealed distaste for Sadr's militancy, and shortly after the US invasion last year went into hiding fearing attack from Sadr's supporters. His absence now, for whatever reason, certainly strengthens Sadr's hand.
Though Sadr's support remains confined to a few, intensely committed pockets in Baghdad and further south, his bloody showdown with US forces last April boosted him to national prominence. In Iraq's confused and fractured political environment, one of the surest paths to popularity is to be seen as opposing the US. One of the most perilous political courses is to be identified with Iraq's erstwhile occupier.
Describing his amnesty, Allawi said, "This law is directed toward individuals who have committed minor crimes and have not yet been apprehended or prosecuted." Allawi urged lower-level fighters of the resistance to "rejoin civil society and participate in the reconstruction of their country and the improvement of their lives, instead of wasting their lives pointlessly toward a lost cause."
Speaking specifically to Sadr's movement, he ignored the fact that the fighting in Najaf has been driven by Mahdi Army fighters. Instead, he said the fighters there are common criminals hiding behind the Mahdi Army's name."I have been having positive messages from Moqtada al-Sadr, that's why we don't think the people who are committing the crimes in Najaf and elsewhere are his people," Allawi said.
But the fighting is spreading to the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City. Sunday, a US Army OH-58 observation helicopter was fired on and made an emergency landing in Sadr City. No casualties were reported and the two pilots aboard were recovered.
On Saturday, Mahdi soldiers told the Monitor they fired mortars into the coalition headquarters of the Green Zone, Iraqi ministry buildings, and the Palestine Hotel. If true, it would be the first time these militants have adopted the Baghdad targets and tactics of the Sunni insurgents.
In Sadr City Sunday, Mahdi soldiers were digging up a main thoroughfare to lay improvised explosive devices in preparation for an anticipated fight with US forces that evening. One militiaman, who refused to give his name, rejected Allawi's amnesty and characterization of lawlessness. "We're not criminals," he said. "We're fighting for our religion, for our freedom. We are defending ourselves."
Abu Abdullah, commander of the Sadr City Orfely Street squadron says he's not concerned about Allawi's efforts to divide factions within the Mahdi Army. "We're united. We follow our leaders. We know that if we do what the IRA did, we would lose our rights and not gain any of the goals we're fighting for."
In Najaf, for now, US and Iraqi forces are using low-intensity measures to try to flush Mahdi militia. Last week, Najaf Governor Adnan al-Zorfi, shut off the power and water supplies to much of the city, in an attempt to turn local populations against Sadr's militia. But he's also threatening that such soft measures won't be used for long. "The military operations will continue unless the Mahdi Army militia leaves the province and I give them 24 hours to do that from the moment my words are broadcast," Mr. al-Zorfi told reporters on Saturday. "There is no compromise or room for another truce."
In Sadr City, a Mahdi fighter by the name of Lieutenant Jasim shows a crowd the GPS device taken from Sunday's downed US helicopter.
"Now I will show you a map of Iraq, of all the places that will be hit by American forces.... The whole world is in here. They're locating all the targets in the world so that they can attack," he says.
• Staff writer Dan Murphy contributed to this report.