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Iraq: Government, Al-Sadr Militia Pursue Peace Deal, But Details Remain Sketchy

For much of this year, U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq have had to cope with repeated uprisings by militiamen loyal to radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The worst uprisings -- in April and again in August -- cost hundreds of lives and saw fighting endanger one of Shi'a Islam's holiest shrines, the Imam Ali Mosque complex in Al-Najaf. Each of those uprisings ended in tenuous truces that failed to bring a full stop to the violence. U.S. forces in recent weeks have repeatedly bombed the militia's positions in its stronghold of Al-Sadr City in Baghdad, and militiamen have fought with U.S. and Iraqi army patrols. But now there are possible signs of a comprehensive peace agreement. The Iraqi government says it is giving Shi'a militiamen five days to hand in their weapons under a weekend peace deal agreed with aides of al-Sadr. In return, the government has agreed to commit more than $500 million to rebuilding Al-Sadr City.

Prague, 11 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Both the Iraqi government and Muqatada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army have confirmed there is a peace deal. But they have sometimes offered contrasting descriptions of its details. The distinctions suggest that tensions remain between the two sides that could still derail the accord.

Iraqi National Security Adviser Qassim Dawud said yesterday that the initiative applies to al-Sadr's armed supporters outside of Baghdad, as well as in the capital.

"This [medium- and heavy-weapons disarmament] initiative will be applied in all Iraqi cities starting with Al-Sadr City. And there have been three centers for receiving arms that have been specified, and they will start operation from tomorrow [11 October] morning. This is a voluntary step from the people of this city. The time period for carrying out this initiative might be up to five days," Dawud said.
"There is a very large budget allocated for the reconstruction of Al-Sadr City. The Iraqi government has allocated about $350 million for this operation, and also funds are being provided by other countries, which may reach $150 million."

The national security adviser also said the Iraqi government and foreign countries will earmark $500 million to reconstruction projects in Al-Sadr City. The neighborhood, almost entirely inhabited by impoverished Shi'a families, has long been considered the worst slum district in the capital.

"After [the handing in of medium and heavy weapons], reconstruction operations will start immediately in Al-Sadr City," Dawud said. "And I would like to point out that there is a very large budget allocated for the reconstruction of Al-Sadr City. The Iraqi government has allocated about $350 million for this operation, and also funds are being provided by other countries, which may reach $150 million. So, in general, we have about half a billion dollars allocated for the reconstruction of Al-Sadr City."

News of the peace deal came on 9 October. Karim al-Bakhit, a mediator in the talks, told reporters the Al-Mahdi Army had agreed to disarm. He said the militiamen would turn over their weapons to the Iraqi government and be paid compensation for them.

The U.S. daily "Chicago Tribune" reported today that, under the deal, the fighters will have five days -- starting today -- to turn in mortars, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and other heavy weapons. Militiamen will be permitted to keep their assault rifles.

Al-Bakhit also said the government of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has agreed not to pursue any of the militia's members and to release any members now in prison who have not yet been charged with crimes.

Other government officials say the militia also has agreed to let Iraqi army and multinational forces patrol Al-Sadr City to ensure there is no return to violence.

But representatives of the Al-Mahdi Army in Baghdad have given no clear sign yet that they regard the deal as extending beyond the capital. Nor have they said publicly that they will accept patrols in Al-Sadr City by forces other than the Iraqi police and National Guard.

A top aide to al-Sadr, Sheikh Abd al-Hadi Daraji, said on 9 October that the militia rejects the presence of multinational forces in Al-Sadr City. "We have been told that the government gave us serious guarantees, and the government will have to guarantee the safety [of the detained al-Sadr supporters]," he said. "The main issue is that of occupation. Resistance to occupation is legitimate. Even the Americans have said resisting the occupation is legitimate. We reject their military presence here [in Al-Sadr City]."

It is unclear whether U.S. officials -- who are reported to have taken part in the final stages of the negotiations -- would agree to exclude multinational forces from Al-Sadr City. U.S. officials have repeatedly said they see unfettered access for multinational forces to all areas of Iraq as essential to maintaining security. Iraqi government forces have yet to be fully trained and equipped for deployment in large numbers nationwide.

Muqtada al-Sadr himself has not commented publicly on the peace moves. Official texts read on his behalf to his supporters have used wording that, in some cases, falls short of meeting all of the government's demands.

Britain's daily "Financial Times" reported on today that a cease-fire announcement broadcast to al-Sadr supporters from mosques in Al-Sadr City over the weekend called on militiamen "to put down arms" but did not mention a compulsory handover.

The newspaper quotes Sa'ad l-Maliki as saying: "We cannot force everyone to hand in their weapons, because those weapons are not the property of Mr. Sadr. They are the property of the people."

The Iraqi government has said that house-to-house searches for heavy weapons will begin in Al-Sadr City on 16 October -- one day after the five-day collection period ends.

However, an announcement from al-Sadr's office over the weekend suggests that militiamen might resist such searches. It forbids "confrontation with the enemy, except in the case of searches or arrests."

Still, both sides have good reasons to try to reach a peace deal ahead of elections planned for January.

The Al-Mahdi Army has suffered heavy losses of fighters in this year's military showdowns with U.S.-led forces. As one result, al-Sadr is widely believed now to be interested in transforming his following into a political party.

Al-Sadr welcomed the fall of Saddam Hussein last year but rejects the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq. The cleric demands the immediate withdrawal of foreign troops and has opposed U.S. efforts to build a secular, Western-style democracy in the country, rather than an Islamic-based form of government.

The Iraqi government has said it would allow a party made up of al-Sadr's supporters to participate in the January elections. Both the Iraqi government and Washington view the elections as a chance to broaden popular support for their efforts to create a post-Saddam Hussein order.

The January elections are to elect a transitional National Assembly. The National Assembly is to choose a transitional government to lead the country to direct election of a representative government by the end of next year.

For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".