Shiite summit aims to prod radical cleric toward cease-fire and rejoining government
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who heads a militia feared by Iraq’s Sunnis, is considering a one-month unilateral cease-fire and may push his followers to rejoin the political process after a three-week boycott, officials close to him said Wednesday.The issue is expected to come up at a meeting Thursday in the holy city of Najaf between al-Sadr and a delegation representing the seven Shiite groups that form the largest bloc in Iraq’s parliament, the Shiite officials said on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the talks.In perhaps an even more important session, the delegation will also sit down with the country’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Officials from several factions confirmed the planned trip to Najaf.The visit is intended to allow the Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, to work out some of Iraq’s biggest political obstacles in front of al-Sistani, and to pressure al-Sadr to rein in his fighters and rejoin politics – or face isolation, participants said.Until the walkout, al-Sadr’s faction had been an integral part of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s governing coalition. Cabinet ministers and legislators who belong to al-Sadr’s movement called the boycott after al-Maliki met with President Bush in Jordan three weeks ago. Al-Sadr’s militia and its offshoots have been increasingly blamed for sectarian attacks.As violence rages across Baghdad and much of Iraq, a new coalition taking shape among Shiites, Kurds and one Sunni party is seen as a last-ditch effort to form a government across sectarian divisions that have split the country. While al-Sadr’s movement would not be part of this coalition, such an alliance – which reportedly is supported by the Bush administration – might pressure the radical cleric to soften his stance.In Thursday’s meeting, the group wants to assure al-Sistani that the new coalition would not break apart the Shiite bloc, said officials from several Shiite parties. Potential members of the coalition said they have been negotiating for two weeks, and now want the blessing of al-Sistani, whose word many Shiites consider binding.The movement is backed by the U.S. government, said Sami al-Askari, a member of the Dawa party and an adviser to al-Maliki.”I met the American ambassador in Baghdad and he named this front the ‘front of the moderates,’ and they (the Americans) support it,” al-Askari said.The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad could not comment on the ambassador’s meeting or his position on the possible coalition deal.However, two prominent figures in the proposed coalition went to Washington to meet Bush separately in the past three weeks: Tarek al-Hashemi of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party and Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, known as SCIRI. The U.S. supports two other potential members, the Kurdish Democratic Party and President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.”The U.S. wants to see an Iraq that is united, stable, democratic and prosperous. We will continue to work with the democratically elected government of Iraq to reach this goal by improving security, promoting national reconciliation and the rule of law and helping the Iraqis deliver essential services,” U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said.After meeting al-Sistani, the delegation will visit al-Sadr to try to persuade him to tell his followers to return to politics, and to assure him that the new coalition – still being completed – will not isolate his movement, said officials from several factions, including al-Sadr’s movement.”Tomorrow we will visit Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr, though the (coalition) front has not yet been formed, due to the demands of the Iraqi Islamic Party,” al-Askari said.His and al-Maliki’s Dawa faction has expressed willingness to join the coalition, but fears it could weaken the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance, Dawa officials said on condition of anonymity because the deal was not final.”We will inform al-Sistani about the latest developments and assure Muqtada al-Sadr that he will not be sidelined from the political process. We want him to change his mind and be a part of that process,” al-Askari told The Associated Press.Officials close to al-Sadr said they believe the firebrand cleric and his followers would turn a friendly ear to the coalition, out of fear of being sidelined in the future.Fearing such political isolation as well as possible attack by U.S. forces, al-Sadr will secretly order his Mahdi Army militia to abide by a one-month halt in fighting, said a Shiite politician, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the negotiations. He did not give further details.Another official close to al-Sadr did not speak about the planned truce directly, but said when asked about it that “the security situation will improve in the coming month.”Even if al-Sadr commands his militia, the Madhi Army, to halt sectarian attacks for a month, questions remain as to whether violence would decrease. The militia is believed to be increasingly fragmented, with some factions no longer reporting to him, and a call for a truce could further divide it.In exchange for a halt in fighting, al-Sadr’s followers want officials from al-Hakim’s Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq to make a promise in front of al-Sistani that they will not sideline al-Sadr’s movement, said a member of al-Sadr’s group.The Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni coalition was not a done deal, though. Several Shiites complained about conditions set by the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, which they said could jeopardize an agreement.”The demands of the Iraqi Islamic Party are not logical and it is hard to implement them,” said Humam Hamoudi, a SCIRI lawmaker. For example, the Sunni party wants all checkpoints leading to and from Baghdad to have an equal number of Shiite and Sunni guards, he said.—AP writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this story from Cairo, Egypt, and AP writer Lauren Frayer contributed from Baghdad.
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