On May 2, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini downplayed the delegation's visit, saying, "Iranian officials will hold talks with this delegation in line with helping settle differences and ongoing clashes in Iraq."
Al-Sadr spokesman Salih al-Ubaydi told Al-Sharqiyah television on May 1 that the delegation, comprised of Shi'ite politicians from the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) was "fishing in troubled waters." Al-Ubaydi said the Sadrists were reluctant to divulge the whereabouts of al-Sadr for political and security reasons. He acknowledged to AFP on May 1 that al-Sadr and other leading members of the so-called Al-Sadr Trend are in Iran. Al-Sadr has been rumored to be studying in the Iranian holy city of Qom.
Al-Ubaydi cited statements by government officials in recent days, including by Prime Minister al-Maliki, that the government would not sit and negotiate with al-Sadr. He confirmed, however, that al-Sadr's representatives have met with President Jalal Talabani and parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani in recent days, and said the dialogue with those officials continues.
"We reject any interference by the [UIA] in this crisis, except when such interference is carried out within the context of the national parliamentary initiative," al-Ubaydi said. "This is because we have found that the [alliance] is lacking in credibility."
The Al-Sadr Trend, which is represented in parliament by 30 "independent" politicians, withdrew its ministers from the cabinet in April 2007. It pulled out of the UIA, which exists mainly as a parliamentary alliance, in September, leaving the UIA in control of around half of parliament's seats.
The friction with the UIA is mainly due to an ongoing rivalry between al-Sadr and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which is headed by Shi'ite politician Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim. Al-Ubaydi alleges that al-Hakim's quest for a super-region in southern Iraq and his desire for his party to win big in governorate elections in October are the driving force behind the government's crackdown on the Sadrists.
Of the UIA figures in the delegation, at least one, Hadi al-Amiri, has long-standing ties to Iran. Al-Amiri is the head of the former armed wing of the ISCI. Formerly known as the Badr Corps, it was set up with Iranian support in the early 1980s. The Badr Corps entered Iraq following the fall of the Hussein regime and later claimed to be disarming and turning to humanitarian work under the name Badr Organization. Al-Sadr spokesman al-Ubaydi told RFE/RL on April 22 that it is not the Sadrists, but the ISCI's Badr forces that are armed and funded by Iran.
Other members of the delegation include deputy parliament speaker Khalid al-Atiyah, Islamic Al-Da'wah Party legislator Ali al-Adib, and Tariq Abdullah, an aide to al-Maliki.
Al-Ubaydi described the delegation to Al-Arabiyah television on May 1 as "Iranians par excellence," claiming that al-Adib holds Iranian citizenship and al-Amiri is a "former general of the Iranian Army." He told the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on April 30 that the presence of Iranian weapons in Iraq is "quite normal," since Iran "sells weapons to anyone who wants, and the Al-Sadr Trend, Al-Qaeda, and the parties in Iraq's political process [a reference to the Badr Corps] have Iranian weapons." He added, "Therefore, it is quite natural to find Iranian weapons because they are bought and sold and any party can buy them."
Iraqi PM Gets Tough
On April 29, Prime Minister al-Maliki told reporters that the government will not tolerate arms in the hands of any forces outside its control. He maintained his position that the government is not singling out al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army, and that all armed groups will be dealt with. "We will not go back on our aim to disarm the militias, dissolve the Al-Mahdi Army, Islamic Army, and Umar Army, and terminate Al-Qaeda," RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq quoted him as saying. The latter three groups are Sunni insurgent groups.
"When we say that there is one army, we mean the state army and not the army of the militias, regardless of the names and types.... Whoever insists on the existence of an army or and armed group wants to compete with the state in its responsibility, and such logic is totally rejected," al-Maliki added.
Al-Maliki said the delegation dispatched to Iran was not there to negotiate. "I did not send a delegation to Iran or any other state for negotiations. I did not permit myself or any of the field commanders to negotiate with any of the criminal gangs, militias, or outlaws. I said this before and I say it now: I will not negotiate. I set conditions for building the state. Whoever abides by them is a true citizen, and whoever rebels against them is an outcast."
In a statement to the people of Al-Sadr City on May 1, the prime minister again commented on the ongoing security operations targeting militias in the Baghdad district. He said the government is making security and reconstruction in Al-Sadr City -- arguably the poorest area in the capital -- a priority.
"We realize the magnitude of the suffering of Al-Sadr City's residents. Thus, we have drawn up the necessary plans to address the issue of housing, rehabilitation of the youth, and creation of proper job opportunities for them, and to build more schools and heath centers," he noted.
"We regret to say that what aggravates the suffering of citizens and harms them is that Al-Sadr City is controlled by criminal gangs and outlaws who obstruct construction and reconstruction projects and implement agendas that clash with national interests. This makes it imperative for us to confront those groups firmly and strongly. Entrenching security and enforcing the law are the responsibilities of the government," al-Maliki added. "We reiterate that those [militiamen] have no option other than laying down their weapons and stopping their tampering with citizens' security."
Aid Deliveries Obstructed
On April 30, government spokesman Tahsin al-Shaykhali told reporters in Baghdad that militiamen in Al-Sadr City have prevented the flow of aid to the impoverished area. Al-Shaykhali said that out of 77 vehicles carrying oil into Al-Sadr City recently, only 22 arrived. "They tried to intervene and intercept those...and steal those vehicles," he said of the militias. "Eighty percent of the needs regarding medicine and the treatment, and even the surgical end -- that is, the surgical operation is present and is being given in the hospital in Al-Sadr City," he said.
Meanwhile, the director-general of Fatima Al-Zahra Hospital told IRIN, the humanitarian news service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, that hospitals in Al-Sadr City are still experiencing medicine and equipment shortages, IRIN reported on May 1. He said the hospitals faced shortages in painkillers, bandages, syringes, and other first-aid materials. Moreover, ambulances come under regular attack. "Work in my hospital has gone down 50 percent," he said, blaming a nearby Iraqi Army checkpoint that "makes it very hard for medical staff and patients to get to the hospital."
The government and coalition forces intend to pour $2.5 million in aid and reconstruction investments into Al-Sadr City in the next 90 days, U.S. Major General Kevin Bergner told reporters on April 30, in what he described as a "first installment." The Iraqi government had earlier announced an allocation of $150 million in aid to Al-Sadr City.
Given the Sadrists intense distrust of the UIA, it appears that the delegation will achieve little in terms of talks with al-Sadr or his representatives. The al-Mashhadani-Talabani route might yield more success, given that the two are far away from intra-Shi'a politics (al-Mashhadani is a Sunni Arab, while Talabani is a Sunni Kurd).
However, those talks may take longer to achieve desired results. As al-Ubaydi was quick to point out in interviews this week, the trend has major issues with Prime Minister al-Maliki, and believes he has reneged on several earlier commitments. Moreover, al-Ubaydi said, the Sadrists need "a third party" to act as an observer to any talks between the Al-Sadr Trend and the Shi'ite-led government, aka the UIA.