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Iraq: Radical Shi'a Cleric Moving From Outlaw To Politician

Muqtada al-Sadr (file photo) There are increasing signs that radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is evolving from an outlaw into a possibly influential politician. The cleric today ordered most of his armed supporters out of the southern Iraqi city of Al-Najaf. The possible end to the standoff in the Shi'a shrine city comes as Washington said yesterday it would not block a political role for al-Sadr in the future.

Prague, 16 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- There are mounting indications that radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr intends to seize the inauguration of a sovereign Iraqi government as the moment to transform from an insurgent leader into a politician.

One sign came today as news agencies reported that al-Sadr has told all members of his Imam Al-Mahdi Army who are not from Al-Najaf to return to their home areas. The formal call could mark the end to an uprising by al-Sadr's supporters that began in April and saw bloody clashes between U.S. troops and militiamen within the Shi'a shrine city and elsewhere.

Al-Sadr's order to his militiamen in Al-Najaf follows weeks of negotiation between the cleric and mainstream religious and secular leaders of the Shi'a community. Some of those leaders are also key members of the new Iraqi government. The negotiators have pressed al-Sadr to end fighting that puts religious sites at risk. They also have sought to defuse tensions over U.S.-backed demands that al-Sadr be arrested in connection with the murder of a rival Shi'a cleric last year.

All of the negotiations have been secret, and it remains unclear if the new Iraqi government and al-Sadr have now come to terms over how the arrest warrant against him will be handled. Some influential Shi'a leaders are reported to back a proposed compromise solution that would allow al-Sadr to stand trial before judges he approves of in exchange for a pledge to abide by their decision.
Recent days have seen steady -- if often confusing -- progress by all sides toward greater accommodation.

There were other strong indications this week that al-Sadr is now on his way to operating within Iraq's political order.

In a surprise statement yesterday, U.S. President George W. Bush said Washington would not block a political role for al-Sadr if the new Iraqi government permits him one. "The interim Iraqi government will deal with al-Sadr in the way they see fit,” Bush said. “They are sovereign. When we say we transfer full sovereignty, we mean we transfer full sovereignty. And they will deal with him appropriately."

Bush's statement suggested a significant change in how the United States now views al-Sadr. Just last month, Bush dubbed al-Sadr a "thug" whose militia threatened efforts to build democracy in the country. "Militias are people who are willing to kill, intimidate, and try to take matters into their own hands, which is not the way democracy functions," he said. "Free societies do not allow thugs to roam streets and hold people hostage to their whims. The Iraqis will deal with Mr. Sadr."

At that time, al-Sadr was equally uncompromising in his public statements, pledging to fight to the death to end the U.S. occupation. The pledge underscored his refusal to cooperate with U.S. officials or the former U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, despite welcoming the toppling of Saddam Hussein last year.

"I fear only God,” he said. “That is first and foremost. And I am ready to sacrifice my blood for this country. But I call on the Iraqi people -- and this is my second message to the Iraqi people -- not to let my killing end their rejection of the occupation and their demands for independence and freedom."

But recent days have seen steady -- if often confusing -- progress by all sides toward greater accommodation.

As recently as last week, Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi announced a landmark agreement with nine parties participating in his government under which their militias would disband. He said all those belonging to militias outside the deal -- including al-Sadr and members of his Al-Mahdi Army -- would be excluded from holding public office for three years.

But this week, al-Sadr unilaterally said he would create a political party that could participate in Iraq's first round of elections scheduled for early next year. And Iraq's President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir praised his decision. Al-Yawir told the media: "I kept on saying constantly that if I were in [al-Sadr's] shoes, I would try to go to the political arena instead of raising arms. He has supporters, he has constituents, he should go through the political process. And I commend this smart move on his side."

A poll commissioned by the Coalition Provisional Authority last month found that 81 percent of Iraqis said their opinion of al-Sadr had improved over the previous three months, with 64 percent saying the actions of his militia had made Iraq more unified.

Some analysts call the moves toward accommodation part of what could be an emerging "Iraqi strategy" for dealing with insurgencies. Daniel Neep of the Royal United Services Institute in London told RFE/RL that this strategy emphasizes co-opting local opponents, rather than continuing previous U.S. efforts to neutralize them by force.

"I think you will see that kind of an approach, which is much more of an Iraqi approach, of trying to not alienate local political figures but trying to bring them in and accommodate them – [to] bring them into the system, rather than marginalize them. I think [you will see] that type of approach with insurgencies based in a particular locality or a particular community and with particular grievances," Neep said.

Still, there are no assurances that this month's progress toward accommodation will continue without new flare-ups to put it at risk. One such incident came as U.S. troops arrested a senior al-Sadr aide and spokesman in an overnight raid in the holy city of Karbala. Coalition forces reportedly seized Ahmad Rida al-Hassani at his home and are now holding him at a U.S. base.

Such arrests -- on the heels of al-Sadr's political steps -- leave it unclear how much pressure U.S. forces will continue to exert on his militia to ensure it ceases to be an element of instability. Washington will continue to maintain overall control for Iraq's security following the 30 June transfer of political power in Baghdad.