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Originally published September 13, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 13, 2007 at 2:09 AM

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U.S. & Mahdi Army — another marriage of convenience in Iraq

American diplomats and military officers have held talks with members of the armed movement loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, a sharp reversal of...

Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD — American diplomats and military officers have held talks with members of the armed movement loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, a sharp reversal of previous policy and a grudging recognition that the radical Shiite cleric holds a dominant position in much of Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.

The secret dialogue has gone on since at least early 2006, but appeared to yield a tangible result only in the past week — a relative calm in an area of western Baghdad that has been among the capital's most dangerous regions.

Talks have been complicated by the movement's internal divisions as well as the cleric's public vow never to meet with Iraq's occupiers. Underlying the issue's sensitivity, Sadrists publicly deny contact with the Americans or British — fully aware the price of acknowledging such meetings would be banishment from the movement or worse.

The dialogue represents a drastic turnaround in the U.S. approach to al-Sadr and the militia loyal to him, the Mahdi Army. The talks seek to produce the same kind of marriage of convenience the military has entered into across central Iraq with insurgent groups and Sunni tribes, many of whom once were prime supporters of Saddam Hussein. Both efforts are examples of how U.S. officials have sought to calm parts of Iraq by cooperating with groups they once considered untouchable.

Sunni militants cooperated in large part because they needed U.S. help to battle militants aligned with al-Qaida in Iraq. By contrast, the Sadrists have yet to decide they want a clear break from their more radical and lawless elements.

In 2004, U.S. officials branded al-Sadr an outlaw and demanded his arrest, sparking two major Shiite revolts in Baghdad and southern Iraq that left hundreds dead in the shrine city of Najaf. Last year, as the Bush administration developed troop-increase strategy, military planners said the offensive would target Mahdi Army fighters involved in sectarian killings. American commanders later accused Iranian-backed elements of the Mahdi Army of being responsible for deadly bomb attacks against U.S. forces and of spearheading sectarian violence.

U.S. officials say they now feel they have no choice but to talk with the militia. Despite many internal rifts, al-Sadr's movement widely is seen as the most powerful force in Baghdad. The Mahdi Army's grip is absolute in most Shiite neighborhoods, where it sells fuel and electricity and rents houses, and it has reached deep inside the army and police.

In testimony to Congress on Monday, Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, stressed the importance of reaching out to the Mahdi Army, deflecting a suggestion from a Republican member of Congress that the U.S. declare the movement a foreign terrorist group.

"You're not going to kill or capture all of the Sadr militia any more than we are going to kill or capture all the insurgents in Iraq," Petraeus said. "Some of this is a little bit distasteful. It's not easy sitting across the table, let's say, or drinking tea with someone whose tribal members may have shot at our forces or in fact drawn the blood — killed our forces."

The White House is keen for a breakthrough. "There's a part of the Sadrist camp that is extremist and dedicated to killing us, and we need to kill them instead. But there are others who we think we might be able to work with," said an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Contacts with al-Sadr's followers have ranged from clandestine meetings with U.S. Embassy officials in the fortresslike Green Zone to encounters on the street between low-level militia commanders and U.S. captains.

This month's breakthrough came when Lt. Col. Patrick Frank, the U.S. officer responsible for western Baghdad's dangerous Bayaa, Jihad and Ammal neighborhoods, met at Camp Falcon with tribal leaders who belonged to the Mahdi Army.

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The effort at talks began when moderate Sadrists involved in the Mahdi Army's social-service network contacted U.S. forces through intermediaries, Frank said. The region was largely Sunni until the Mahdi Army began driving out Sunni residents and replacing them with Shiites last year. Locals grew unhappy that their neighborhood was the stage for shootouts and bombings. Some Sadrists started passing tips to the Americans on militants involved in crimes.

An opening for more wide-ranging talks came with al-Sadr's announcement nearly two weeks ago that his militia would halt operations for six months. That cease-fire was in response to fighting between al-Sadr's followers and other Shiite factions that left 52 dead in the shrine city of Karbala.

"Once Muqtada al-Sadr issued his call for six months of nonviolence, we thought that went hand in hand with the initiative we were attempting to start," Frank said.

When the meeting came, Frank proposed the Sadrists stop attacks for two weeks. In exchange, he said the U.S. would consider reducing raids in the district. The al-Sadr representatives relayed the plan back to Mahdi Army brigade and company commanders, and violence now has dropped for a week, the commander said.

Frank said he has no illusions that peace is at hand. "We understand that it may be cyclical. Reconciliation efforts may occur many times."

How far the talks with the Sadrists can go may depend on a debate that militia members say is raging within their movement over their fighters' conduct. Parliament member Qusay Abdul Wahab said al-Sadr's new truce aimed to make a clear distinction between the Mahdi Army and those fighters who have used the group as a cover for murder and other crimes.

"Those who do not obey ... will surface. The Iraqi security forces will go after them," he said, adding it was OK for Americans to do the same.

A street commander in Sadr City put the policy this way: "Anyone who fights the American now is not from the Mahdi Army," he said. "Muqtada [al-] Sadr sent this order to freeze the Mahdi Army for just one reason: to distinguish between good and bad Mahdi Army members."

The fighter made another remark, however, that gave a quick reminder of what a long road the Americans have to travel before they enjoy a partnership with al-Sadr's movement. "Anyone who collaborates with the Americans," he said, "will be considered a traitor."

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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