Sadr fighters disarm, again

The rebel cleric's followers began handing in weapons Monday, but some are bent on continuing to fight American forces in Baghdad.

Fighters loyal to the militant Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr began giving up weapons Monday, taking the first step in a peace deal aimed at calming part of Iraq's widespread insurgency before January elections.

Iraq's interim government - and many conflict-weary residents of Sadr City - are heralding the peace deal, and hope it ends Mr. Sadr's longstanding revolt.

But some of the cleric's own gunmen are not yet convinced that the carrot - in the form of $500 million in aid for this poor neighborhood of Baghdad - won't again morph into a US military stick after they've handed in their weapons.

And militant factions remain, Shiite observers say. Some are bent on continued war and may not accept Sadr's apparent bid to transform his popular uprising into a political force in Iraq's emerging democracy.

"The people are so happy with this agreement but at the same time they are nervous about what will happen next," says a Sadr fighter who asked to use Abu Mujtaba as his name. "We have negotiated before, and after the agreement, the Americans attacked."

Monday, gunmen across the sprawling Shiite slum of Sadr City - a stronghold of Sadr and the estimated 2,000 members of his Mahdi Army militia - began turning in grenade launchers, mortar tubes, and heavy machine guns for cash. Militants have five days to complete the handover; Iraqi forces will then be able to search suspect houses for heavy weapons.

The deal is meant to end all hostilities, including Mahdi Army attacks on US forces and nightly American airstrikes on Sadr City targets that have continued for weeks.

Also agreed upon is a release of jailed Sadr loyalists and the funneling of the reconstruction cash to Sadr City. Iraqi police and National Guard units, backed by the US, are also to play a greater role in the area.

The government hopes this example - which coincides with peace talks now under way with Sunni insurgents in Fallujah, west of Baghdad - will help all armed groups rejoin civil society.

For their part, Western officials say that they have little trust in Sadr. One earlier deal temporarily halted a revolt that had spread across southern Iraq last April. But the revolt reignited in August in the revered Shiite city of Najaf.

Still, the deal struck at that time for Sadr to withdraw his forces - made after weeks of battle caused heavy Sadr losses and left parts of central Najaf in ruins - is holding.

The Najaf agreement is working, and so is "a good omen for Baghdad," says Mr. Baram. "It means Moqtada's control of his foot soldiers is reasonably good."

"This [Sadr City] agreement is extremely important, even if it fails, even if it's only partial, because for the first time, there is something that looks like a [viable] arrangement," says Amatzia Baram, an expert on the Shiites at the University of Haifa.

Sadr, a junior cleric whose popular forebears opposed and were killed by Mr. Hussein's regime, learned lessons from the bloody results of the April and August uprisings, Mr. Baram says.

"He saw that when his ragtag militia is poised against the Americans, they really have no chance," says Baram. "Their only choice is to reach some kind of an agreement to their benefit, but not a victory. Victory is out of the question."

In recent weeks, a senior Sadr aide has been meeting with a string of political groups, paving the way for potential alliances before the January vote. But loyal clerics and Sadr himself have sent mixed messages about the vote. Sometimes there is talk of a new political party, and participation in the election; at other times, warnings are given that any election is impossible in the shadow of the continued US-led occupation.

In teeming Sadr City - at 2.2 million people, home to nearly one of every 10 Iraqis in the entire country - gunmen say they are reluctant to give up everything. But while rhetoric about keeping up the fight may have resonated widely a few months ago, today most people in this slum want peace and work.

"Some people are not happy, because they want to fight - this is their job now," says Abu Mujtaba. "But for those with jobs, they want peace, so they can work."

With peace in place, US and other foreign companies with contracts to rebuild "will be protected by the citizens of Sadr City - to protect our interests," says Abu Sajad, another Sadr fighter who works in a Baghdad metal workshop.

"But I think 75 percent of the people of Sadr City don't trust the American promises," says Abu Sajad. "They did nothing until now. We need to see some improvement, and the Americans can do that if they want."

The trade-off of peace for aid money earmarked by Iraq's interim government appeals to many in the slum that was neglected by Saddam Hussein's regime long before it was turned into a no-go area for US troops and Western contractors.

Tuesday, Sadr City is a place of deep poverty, blackened by the soot of burned tires and firefights. Garbage is piled high; streets are broken, dusty avenues that were packed with children going home from school Monday at noon. Down one alley, boys played with a life-size toy pistol, jamming it into their belts like urban warriors. The acrid smell of burning trash fills the air, and graffiti on a wall reads: "Long live Sadr! The Americans and [interim government] are infidels!"

But the bombing has taken a toll. "Sadr City doesn't need money," says Abu Mujtaba. "It needs sleep."

"I'm sure they will keep some of the weapons, but keep them strictly off the streets and put them under their beds," says Baram.

In the political process, Sadr "will use pressure and threats, but he won't try to blow up the whole system, because he has great hopes from the election," he adds.

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