[Mb-civic] NYTimes.com Article: Talks to Disarm Rebel
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michael at intrafi.com
Wed Sep 1 09:52:37 PDT 2004
Shiites Collapses in Iraq
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Talks to Disarm Rebel
Shiites Collapses in Iraq
September 1, 2004
By DEXTER FILKINS and ERIK ECKHOLM
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Aug. 31 - Talks to disarm hundreds of
insurgents in the roiling Sadr City ghetto in Baghdad
collapsed Tuesday, after a tentative peace pact was
abruptly canceled by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
Leaders of the Mahdi Army, the rebel force led by the
Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, and two well-placed Iraqi
sources said an agreement had been reached late Monday that
called for the disarming of the rebel force and a halt in
American military operations in Sadr City.
Mahdi Army commanders and other Iraqi sources said Tuesday
that Dr. Allawi backed out of the agreement on Tuesday
The failure of negotiations raised the prospect of more
violence from Mr. Sadr's Shiite insurgency, meaning the
Iraqi government may not be able to direct its full
political and military resources to quelling the continuing
Sunni insurgency in other parts of the country.
Also on Tuesday, a militant Islamic group announced a mass
killing in Iraq, showing pictures of 12 dead Nepalese
laborers for a Jordanian company. [Page A9.]
The agreement on Monday on Sadr City, reached after several
days of negotiations, had come on the heels of the
withdrawal of Mr. Sadr's forces from Najaf last week after
the intervention of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the
country's most powerful religious leader.
"Last night there was a deal," said Yusef al-Nasiri, the
leader of the Mahdi Army in Sadr City. "This morning there
was supposed to be a press conference. But then Allawi
surprised us, and he has taken us back to zero."
Simultaneous news conferences scheduled by Dr. Allawi and
the Mahdi Army to announce their earlier deal were called
Mr. Nasiri said he had been told by one of the government's
negotiators, Qassim Daoud, the minister of state, that Dr.
Allawi had objected to the restrictions placed on Americans
soldiers operating in the area. Under the agreement, the
Americans would be limited to performing reconstruction
work; anything more aggressive than that would require the
permission of the Iraqi government.
Aides to Mr. Sadr acknowledged that the agreement to disarm
the militia forces had been left vague, which may also have
given Dr. Allawi pause. He could not be reached for
An American diplomat, speaking on the condition of
anonymity, said American officials were unaware of such an
agreement between the Iraqi government and Mr. Sadr.
But an Iraqi source said Dr. Allawi had decided to take a
harsher approach toward Mr. Sadr and the Mahdi Army,
possibly including the use of military force. The source
said Dr. Allawi appeared to be motivated by disappointment
with the agreement in Najaf, which ended the bloodshed
there but left the Mahdi Army intact and made Mr. Sadr
stronger than ever, in the eyes of many Iraqis.
In addition, the Iraqi source said, Dr. Allawi had recently
come under intense pressure from Shiite political parties
that fear that the entry of Mr. Sadr into the political
mainstream could diminish their own potential success at
The groups include the Supreme Council for the Islamic
Revolution in Iraq, which was long based in Iran and which
has close ties to Ayatollah Sistani, and Dawa, a prominent
religious movement. Such established organizations tend to
see Mr. Sadr as an upstart.
The Iraqi source said it was possible that Dr. Allawi's
intention was to kill or capture Mr. Sadr, in hopes of
striking a death blow to his increasingly popular movement,
which has the support of many poor Shiites and of 150 imams
around the country. He wants to humiliate Moktada," the
source said of Dr. Allawi. "He needs a victory."
Another Iraqi political leader echoed those remarks, saying
that the prime minister appeared to be reverting to his
roots as a former member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party,
where political dissent was often silenced with the gun.
"Allawi is a Baathist at heart, and he inherited all of his
thoughts and behavior from them," said a senior leader of
an Iraqi political party. "He is like Saddam; he has a
smile on his face, but a gun in his hand to shoot you with
- and he will use it."
It was the second time this month that Dr. Allawi had
backed out of a tentative peace deal struck by his
negotiators, who are led by his national security adviser,
Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a Shiite political leader who is close
to Ayatollah Sistani. Earlier this month, with the fighting
raging in Najaf, Dr. Rubaie announced that he had struck a
deal with Mr. Sadr, only to see Dr. Allawi renounce it.
Indeed, the abrupt cancellation of the agreement seemed to
reveal a split within Iraq's Shiite political leadership,
and even inside Dr. Allawi's government, over how to deal
with the threat posed by Mr. Sadr and his legions of armed
men. Several Iraqi newspapers reported this week that Dr.
Rubaie intends to resign over differences with Dr. Allawi,
who is a Shiite as well. Both Dr. Rubaie and Dr. Allawi
have denied the strains.
The differences between the two are reflected in the larger
Shiite community, which has been divided on the issue of
dealing with the challenge posed by the Mahdi Army. Mr.
Sadr, a 30-year-old street cleric, is disliked by Iraq's
Shiite religious establishment, which has felt increasingly
threatened by his growing popularity.
Some Iraqi leaders, especially the Shiite ones, have
quietly raised the prospect of killing or arresting Mr.
Sadr as a way of eliminating him as a threat.
Other Shiite leaders advocate a more diplomatic approach to
Mr. Sadr, based on the notion that aggressive action would
only inflame his large following.
"Were someone to try to kill Moktada, it would disturb the
peace," said Adnan Ali, a leader of the Dawa Party, one of
the largest Shiite parties. "Moktada has a lot of
sympathizers in Iraq, and it would be incorrect to ignore
Some Shiite leaders say a debate has been raging inside Mr.
Sadr's movement in recent weeks about the possibility of
ending the armed struggle and entering democratic politics.
Mr. Nasiri, the Mahdi Army leader, echoed that Tuesday.
"We have a clear political plan," Mr. Nasiri said, "for a
new Iraq, for democracy, for human rights."
In the past, though, such declarations by Mr. Sadr and his
lieutenants have proved empty. Mr. Sadr has promised
repeatedly to lay down his weapons and stop fighting, but
he has repeatedly broken that promise.
One of the unanswered questions in the negotiations has
been the role of the American government, which has
provided most of the armed forces deployed against Mr.
Sadr. American diplomats have said that in confrontations
like the one in Najaf, they would follow Dr. Allawi's lead.
A Western diplomat expressed skepticism about Mr. Sadr's
latest promises to renounce violence, suggesting that they
were no more sincere than those that came before. "He has
given no indication that he would give up his weapons," the
diplomat said, speaking of Mr. Sadr.
The diplomat suggested that Mr. Sadr, who has not taken
part in the negotiations himself, is probably trying to buy
time as he replenishes his ranks. The appropriate response,
the diplomat suggested, was to keep up the pressure.
"We have seen no evidence that Moktada is prepared to
forswear violence and enter the political process," the
diplomat said. "The movement has suffered damage and wants
a timeout. We can't figure out why that is in our
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