20 August 2004, Volume 7, Number 31
INSIDE IRAQIRAQI NATIONAL CONFERENCE 'ELECTS' INTERIM ASSEMBLY. Some 1,300 delegates gathered in Baghdad on 15 August for a three-day conference to elect an interim national assembly that will serve until national elections are held in January 2005. The national assembly will be responsible for approving Iraq's 2005 budget, and have the power to veto legislation by a two-thirds majority. It will also be assigned the duty of appointing a new prime minister or president if either of those men resign or die in office. The conference's opening session, however, was quickly overshadowed by the situation in Al-Najaf when members of the Shi'ite Council interrupted the proceedings to protest the standoff in the Shi'ite holy city.
Members from the council stormed out of the opening session and refused to return until their demands were met, council spokesman Muhyi al-Din al-Khatib said, according to Al-Jazeera. The pressing events forced the conference to break just minutes into the opening session, with delegates from the Shi'ite Council demanding the cessation of military operations in Al-Najaf and the opening of a dialogue between all concerned parties. The council also demanded that power be granted to the interim assembly to withdraw confidence from and unseat the government if the government were to harm national interests, and demanded that people who were nominated "without the knowledge of the preparatory committee" be subject to renomination. Council members further demanded the inclusion of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in the political process. Al-Sadr refused on several occasions to participate in the conference.
The conference got back on track after delegate Husayn al-Sadr proposed that a delegation travel to Al-Najaf to negotiate with the cleric (see this report). Al-Sharqiyah television reported that several committees had been formed at the end of the first day's meeting: a political committee chaired by Sa'd al-Barazanji; a security committee chaired by Tawfiq al-Yasiri; a reconstruction committee chaired by Salam Sumaysim; and a human rights committee chaired by Ali al-Attar.
Many conference delegates from smaller political parties also voiced objection to the decision to allocate 19 of the 100 seats on the national assembly to members of the former Iraqi Governing Council. Some political parties voiced objection to the mechanism employed for selecting delegates to the conference itself. By 17 August, hundreds of delegates had threatened to walk out of the conference because of the proposed voting procedure: delegates would vote according to lists, not candidates. Moreover, Shi'ite religious parties reportedly demanded that 51 percent of the 100 available seats go to their members, washingtonpost.com reported.
The conference rules reportedly call for delegates from different groups, be they Kurdish, Arab, Islamist or other, to compile lists for the 81 available seats and submit each list to be voted on by delegates. The list gaining a 51 percent majority would be the winning list, with those people on the list assuming seats on the assembly. However, the dissent was reportedly so strong that conference preparatory committee head Fu'ad Ma'sum was forced to put the voting mechanism to a vote. "The mainstream political parties have dominated the conference and have already drawn up their lists for selecting the national council," National Democratic Movement member Aziz al-Yasiri told middle-east-online.com. Meanwhile, a source at the Muslim Scholars Association told "Al-Hayat" that the organization was never actually approached by the preparatory committee or the United Nations about attending the conference, despite media reports to the contrary, the daily reported on 18 August. The organization's spokesman, Muhammad Bashar al-Faydi, said: "We are a voice opposed to the occupation and to those clinging to its heels. The aims of our marginalization are clear." The conference, slated to end on 17 August, was also extended for one day due to the absence of the eight delegates that traveled to Al-Najaf.
In the end, only two lists were submitted to the conference on 18 August. But the divide appeared to worsen when delegates from the Democratic Forum withdrew their list leaving the National Unity List compiled by the five major political parties as the sole list. A planned vote by secret ballot never took place, washingtonpost.com reported on 19 August. "Four cardboard ballot boxes placed on the stage remained unused, and many delegates abandoned the meeting hall to collect their $100 per diem payments instead of participating in a show of hands," the website reported. The delegates apparently did not contest the list, leaving it to be deemed "ratified" by the interim government. "The big government parties...are saying we need a parliament working in harmony with the government. We don't like that. Since when was a parliament working in harmony with a government?" delegate Isma'il Zayir told middle-east-online.com. "These big government parties are sitting in the back rooms, dividing the cake among themselves and then they will go on stage and say 'These are our lists, take it or leave it.' This is undemocratic," he added.
Many delegates following the vote said they were unaware that they would be required to vote for lists rather than individual candidates, latimes.com reported. Delegates also complained that the names on the winning list were a "closely held secret" not revealed until just before the voting was to take place, the website reported. Written lists were not provided to the delegates, who instead had to listen to the 81-name list being read aloud in a noisy auditorium.
However, some conference delegates said that it was a learning process. "They should have accommodated all the opinions, all the views.... They should have been clear and open with the people right from the beginning," former Iraqi Governing Council spokesman Hamid al-Kifai said. "But I am hopeful, because we are on the road to democracy. We can talk to you [journalists] now and we are not frightened to be arrested or killed or tortured. So we are free people." (Kathleen Ridolfo)
U.S. FORCES RAID SCIRI, BADR HEADQUARTERS. U.S. forces in Al-Najaf raided on 17 August the headquarters for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the organization's Badr Brigades office in the holy city, Al-Jazeera reported. Two Badr guards were killed in one of the raids, according to a statement by al-Haj Hasan Abu Ali, who heads the Badr organization in the city. The reason behind the raid is not known. Meanwhile, Baghdad's "Al-Ittihad" reported on 17 August that police and multinational forces arrested the secretary-general of Hizballah in a recent raid on the organization's office in Baghdad. Hasan al-Sari was arrested along with two of his colleagues, Hashim al-Shawki and Ruhan al-Jabiri. Al-Sari served as a member of the Iraqi National Conference's Preparatory Committee. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
BAGHDAD ATTACK KILLS SEVEN, WOUNDS SCORES. At least seven Iraqis were killed and 42 others were wounded in an attack in central Baghdad on 17 August, Reuters reported, citing Interior Ministry officials. The blast, at first suspected to be a car bomb, is believed to have come from a shell fired by insurgents into a crowded street, international media reported. An unidentified Interior Ministry official told Reuters that he expected many casualties from the attack. "The place was very crowded, it is a commercial area," the official said. Meanwhile, the Health Ministry reported on 17 August that 14 people were killed and 122 wounded in the previous 24 hours of fighting in Baghdad's Al-Sadr City, Reuters reported. Unidentified gunmen assassinated Iraqi National Guard Captain Ihsan al-Saji and four of his bodyguards in Samarra, police sources told Al-Arabiyah on 17 August. Gunmen also reportedly killed the head of the Al-Anbar Governorate Police, Major Muwaydin al-Hardan, the news agency reported. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
AL-NAJAF POLICE CHIEF DISCUSSES KIDNAPPINGS, THREATS, AND BEHEADINGS BY MILITIAMEN. Al-Najaf police chief Ghalib al-Jaza'iri has spoken out against the "barbaric" acts of militiamen loyal to al-Sadr, saying the militia has kidnapped, killed, and even beheaded some of his policemen, Reuters reported on 16 August. The militia is currently holding al-Jaza'iri's 80-year-old father hostage after kidnapping and dragging him through the streets of the city. The police chief's brothers were reportedly beaten unconscious. Al-Jaza'iri said that 40 of his policemen have been killed, several of them by beheading. He claimed that militiamen have gouged out the eyes of some of the officers and boiled them in hot water. "Do Iraqi police behead people?" al-Jaza'iri asked. "This is barbaric. They enter people's homes and they kill the relatives of policemen." (Kathleen Ridolfo)
SHI'ITE MILITANTS SET SOUTHERN OIL COMPANY ON FIRE. Witnesses in the Iraqi city of Al-Basrah said that Shi'ite militants set fire to the stores and offices of the Southern Oil Company on 19 August, Al-Arabiyah reported on 20 August. Al-Sadr loyalists had threatened on 19 August to torch all oil wells in southern Iraq, the satellite news channel reported. Asked about the 19 August threat, al-Sadr aide Aws al-Khafaji told Al-Jazeera television the same day: "After hearing the provocative statements of the so-called Iraqi minister of state on behalf of his unjust government, some of the people of Al-Basrah and Al-Amarah blew up many oil pipelines and some oil wells. I would like to emphasize the word some. They are threatening to torch all the oil wells in the region, for [the possibility of U.S. and Iraqi forces] storming the mausoleum of the Prince of the Faithful [Imam Ali bin Abi Talib] is not a trivial thing." Al-Khafaji did not say whether al-Sadr sanctioned the attack on oil installations and pipelines. Militants also set fire to an oil pipeline that connects wells in Kirkuk to a refinery in Bayji on 19 August, international media reported. KR
INTERIOR MINISTER SAYS NO INTENTION TO ARREST IRAQI NATIONAL CONGRESS HEAD. Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib reportedly said on 12 August that the interim government has "no intention" of following through on an arrest warrant for Iraqi National Congress (INC) head Ahmad Chalabi, Al-Arabiyah reported. Chalabi is wanted on forgery charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 August 2004). INC spokesman Mithal al-Alusi told Al-Jazeera on 12 August that the government has decided to postpone the charges against Chalabi. "We were told via official channels in the Council of Ministers by telephone that a decision by the council...recommends that they [the government] wait and not level charges against the Iraqi symbol Ahmad Chalabi and other Iraqi symbols," al-Alusi said. Chalabi returned to Iraq from Iran on 11 August. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
MUSLIM SCHOLARS' ASSOCIATION ISSUES FATWA AGAINST ASSISTING U.S. IN AL-NAJAF. The Muslim Scholars' Association has issued a fatwa banning Iraqis from assisting U.S. forces in Al-Najaf, Al-Arabiyah reported on 12 August. In an interview with the satellite news channel on the same day, association leader Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarra'i accused U.S. forces of initiating the latest crisis in Al-Najaf, claiming that the United States attacked the city. "U.S. forces are occupation forces and it is prohibited to support them," he said. "The Iraqi government had said that the Iraqi Army will enter [Al-Najaf] supported by warplanes. But the reality is that the U.S. occupation forces are the ones that enter and the ones that attack," al-Samarra'i added. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
MARTIAL LAW IMPLEMENTED IN AL-KUT. Wasit Governor Muhammad Rida al-Jash'ami announced on 19 August that he would implement martial law in the restive city of Al-Kut, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on the same day. The governor called on the U.S. military to help restore order to the city. "We asked for U.S. planes to bomb areas witnessing an unstable situation," the news channel quoted the governor as saying in a statement. The declaration is the first time that Iraqi officials have implemented martial law since the interim government's announcement of the National Safety Law in July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 July 2004). Al-Kut has been the site of ongoing clashes between al-Sadr militiamen and Iraqi and U.S. forces. Scores of Iraqis were reportedly killed in the clashes, and homes destroyed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 August 2004). KR
REGIONAL NEWSTEHRAN SKEPTICAL ABOUT KIDNAPPING IN IRAQ. Al-Jazeera television and Al-Alam television reported on 15 August that the Islamic Army of Iraq released a statement on 13 August announcing that unless Iran released 500 Iraqis held since the Iran-Iraq War it would take action against Iranian consular official Fereidun Jahani. Jahani disappeared on the highway from Baghdad to Karbala on 8 August, and the Islamic Army of Iraq took credit for the kidnapping (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 16 August 2004). According to Al-Alam, "Jahani was abducted by elements of the Mujahedin Khalq terrorist organization" and "the group planned the abduction in the corridors of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad." Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi denied that there are any Iraqi POWs in Iran, IRNA reported. He said the identity of the kidnappers and the nature of their demands are "suspicious." (Bill Samii)
STILL NOT CLEAR WHO IS HOLDING IRNA PERSONNEL IN IRAQ. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Seyyed Mohammad Sadr said on 15 August that Tehran is "almost" convinced that Iraqi police detained four IRNA correspondents on 9 August, but Tehran still cannot confirm this, IRNA reported (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 16 August 2004). He added that his ministry is in constant touch with Iraqi officials in an effort to secure the release of the IRNA personnel. Amir Mohebbian, an editor of Iran's "Resalat" newspaper, said on 14 August that the IRNA personnel were arrested in a calculated move to sever communication links between Iraq and the outside world. Meanwhile, police in Al-Najaf arrested an Iranian, an Egyptian, and a Jordanian who had weapons of Iranian origin in their possession, Baghdad's Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 14 August. An Iraqi Interior Ministry source said the weapons included rocket-propelled grenades, "Kalashnikovs" (it did not specify if they were AK-47s, AK-74s, or AKMs), and machine guns. Earlier media reports described more extensive Iranian involvement in Iraqi unrest -- police arrested 28 Iranians and three Afghans in Karbala on 8 August, and they deported about 1,000 Iranians from the city on 7 August (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 12 August 2004). (Bill Samii)
KUWAITI FIRM CLAIMS HOSTAGES SAFE IN IRAQ. The Kuwaiti employer of three Indian workers held hostage in Iraq has reportedly claimed that the men are safe, "The Times of India" reported on 18 August. The employer, Kuwait and Gulf Link (KFL) transport company said it has lost contact with the abductors but company spokesman Rana Abu Zainah said: "We are sure all the hostages are safe. We know this through our Iraqi friends and other sources." Abu Zainah said that the company lost contact with the Black Banners Brigade of the Islamic Secret Army after talks broke down on 8 August. The group had demanded that compensation be paid to the "martyrs" of Al-Fallujah, as well as to women it claims were raped in the U.S.-run Abu Ghurayb prison and to the families of detainees held in Iraq. It also demanded the release of all Iraqis held in Kuwait (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 7 August 2004). (Kathleen Ridolfo)
IRAQI PRESIDENT VISITS TURKEY. Iraqi interim President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir met with Turkish officials in Ankara on 16-17 August and said that his government would work to eradicate the presence of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), also known as Kongra-Gel, from northern Iraq, NTV reported on 17 August. However, Al-Yawir warned Turkey not to interfere in Iraq's domestic affairs. Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer told the media on 16 August that Turkey expects Iraq to follow through on its commitment. "Another important security issue between the two countries is the presence of a terrorist organization that targeted Turkey using Iraq as a base," Sezer said of the Turkish-Kurdish group. "I told President al-Yawir that we expect that the new Iraq won't be a shelter for terrorist organizations, and will try to end the presence of terrorist organization PKK/Kongra-Gel on his soil."
The talks also focused on Iraq's security. A number of Turkish truck drivers have been killed or kidnapped in Iraq in recent weeks. Turkish State Minister Kursad Tuzman told reporters on 17 August that he would also raise the issue of visas with al-Yawir, Anatolia news agency reported on the same day. Iraqi officials recently said they would require Turkish citizens to obtain visas before entering Iraq. "We are trying to enable Iraqi officials to give visa[s] to our citizens at the border passes" if Iraq requires Turkish citizens to obtain visas, he said. The minister said he was concerned that the visa procedure could affect business between the two states in the future. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
THE UN AND IRAQUN MARKS FIRST ANNIVERSARY OF BAGHDAD BOMBING. The United Nations marked the first anniversary of the bombing of the UN's Baghdad headquarters on 19 August, the BBC reported. The attack killed 22 people, including UN special adviser Sergio Vieira de Mello, and injured more than 100. The envoy's family attended a ceremony in Geneva to remember the anniversary, during which a plaque was dedicated to the victims of the attack. "I have come to represent my son. He would have told me that I was too old to travel," Gilda Vieira de Mello told reporters. She added that she still questions why the UN failed to provide better security around the UN building. Fugitive Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi claimed responsibility for the 2003 attack. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan attended the Geneva event. Other ceremonies marking the anniversary were held in New York, Baghdad, and the UN's main Iraq base in Amman, the UN News Service reported (http://www.un.org/news). The UN withdrew all international staff from Iraq in September and moved its base of operations for Iraq to Jordan. Local staff and a small contingent working to help facilitate nationwide elections in January 2005 are currently working in Iraq. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
UN SECURITY COUNCIL RENEWS IRAQI MISSION FOR ANOTHER YEAR. The United Nations Security Council unanimously renewed the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) on 12 August, the UN News Center reported (http://www.un.org/news). UNAMI is responsible for coordinating international humanitarian operations and helping Iraq prepare for nationwide elections in January 2005 and draft a permanent constitution. The mission was established by UN Security Council Resolution 1500 on 14 August 2003. On 12 July, Annan named Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Ashraf Jehangir Qazi as special representative to Iraq, replacing Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in the 19 August 2003 bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad. Annan told the Security Council in a 6 August report that security remained a constraint in Iraq. The activities of UNAMI and UN agencies will remain limited to essential tasks as long as the risk to UN personnel in the country is categorized as "high to critical," Annan said in the report. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
UNICEF SAYS CHILDREN IN IRAQ REMAIN VULNERABLE. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said on 18 August that while the agency has helped improve the situation for Iraq's children over the past 18 months, more work needs to be done to ensure the safety of youth, the UN News Center reported (http://www.un.org/news).
"The children of Iraq have suffered enough. They have gone through three wars, 12 years of sanctions, and live in extraordinarily difficult circumstances -- often living in fear of violence," Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF said in a statement.
The UN reports that nearly half of Iraq's population is under the age of 18. Many children were vulnerable to malnutrition, disease, and exploitation prior to last year's war, with one in eight children dying before their fifth birthday. Today, children -- particularly girls -- remain vulnerable because of the security situation, and the UN reports that parents often keep their children out of school because of the instability. Over 100 children were killed in fighting in Al-Basrah and Al-Fallujah during the month of April. Land mines and explosive ordinances remain constant dangers.
UNICEF has made extraordinary progress, however. Working with only local staff for the past year, the agency has teamed up with Iraqi authorities to immunize thousands of children. The agency has also provided education kits for primary schools, repaired water and sewage plants, and provided supplies to community centers for children. It also distributed mine-risk education leaflets to Al-Fallujah residents in an effort to promote public awareness. A short video on the efforts of the agency in Iraq was recently posted to the agency's website (http://unicef.org). (Kathleen Ridolfo)
EUROPE, THE U.S., AND IRAQVATICAN OFFERS TO MEDIATE STANDOFF IN AL-NAJAF. The Vatican has reportedly offered to mediate the standoff between al-Sadr and Iraqi and multinational forces in Al-Najaf, AP reported on 17 August. Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano told Italian state radio on 16 August that if official mediation is requested, the Vatican would "very willingly" meet that request. "We welcome the initiative of the pope at the Vatican and call on him to intervene to solve the crisis," AP quoted al-Sadr spokesman Ahmad al-Shaybani as saying. Al-Jazeera reported on 17 August that some 2,000 Iraqi civilian "volunteers" have traveled to Al-Najaf to help form a human shield around the Imam Ali Shrine that al-Sadr uses as his base in the city. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
NATO MISSION ARRIVES IN IRAQ. Members of a NATO training mission have arrived in Iraq, according to a statement by the alliance's Naples-based southern command, AFP reported on 15 August. The Training Implementation Mission in Iraq reportedly began arriving in Iraq one week earlier. The mission will "contribute to the goal shared by the entire international community -- to help Iraqi provide for its own peace and security," NATO's Joint Force Command Naples said in a 14 August statement, AFP reported. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
MOROCCO DEFEATS IRAQ IN OLYMPIC SOCCER, BUT QUARTERFINAL BERTH ASSURED. The Moroccan Olympic soccer team defeated Iraq 2-0 on 18 August, but the defeat will not stand in the way of Iraq competing in the quarterfinals, international media reported on 19 August. As the winner of Group D, the Iraqi team will advance to face Australia on 21 August. The Iraqi soccer team was not expected to qualify for the 2004 Olympic Games, and its stunning defeats of Portugal and Costa Rica surprised even Iraqi fans. The last time Iraq qualified for the Olympics was at the 1988 Seoul Games; it has not been in the quarterfinals since the 1980 Moscow Games, msnbc.com reported on 18 August. Iraqis will also compete in weightlifting, judo, and wrestling. One woman is on the team: sprinter Ala Hikmat Jasim, who will run the 100-meter and 200-meter preliminaries, sports.tbo.com reported on 18 August. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
UKRAINIAN COURT UPHOLDS IRAQI COURT RULING. A Ukrainian court of appeal has upheld an Iraqi court's conviction of two seamen from the Navstar-1 tanker that were charged in August 2003 for illegally acquiring 3,500 tons of fuel, "Era" reported on 17 August. They were subsequently sentenced to seven years in prison in Baghdad (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 16 October 2003) but later transferred to Ukraine to serve out their sentences there. The Ukrainian Court of Appeals had to adapt the verdict by the Iraqi court according to Ukrainian law. While upholding the sentence, the court of appeals annulled some $2.5 million in fines faced by each man because the fines were inconsistent with Ukrainian law, UNIAN news agency reported on 17 August. (Kathleen Ridolfo)
END NOTETHE STANDOFF WITH AL-SADR: MORE OF THE SAME.
By Kathleen Ridolfo
Anyone doubting the political savvy of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr must by now admit that the cleric more than makes up for his lack of an ideological platform with his ability to influence the Iraqi political scene. No sooner had the office of Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani announced that the ayatollah would fly to London for medical treatment, than al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army intensified its attacks on Iraqi and U.S. forces in a number of cities across Iraq.
The two-week standoff has allowed the cleric to thrust his movement into the spotlight. Delegates to the Iraqi National Conference, which got under way on 15 August to elect an interim National Assembly, were consumed by the standoff in Al-Najaf from the opening session, and much of the conference's focus was consumed by efforts to negotiate an end to the crisis. Al-Sadr's "game" with the interim government went something like this: intense fighting broke out between al-Sadr militiamen and Iraqi and U.S. forces on 5 August. The following day, the U.S. military said it had killed about 300 militiamen. Al-Sadr's spokesman claimed that only 36 militiamen were killed. The fighting spread to a number of cities throughout the country. On 7 August, Iraqi Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Sadiq al-Husayni al-Shirazi issued a statement calling on all parties to lay down their arms and enter into negotiations. The fighting raged on, however, and the Iraqi Health Ministry reported heavy casualties in Al-Najaf and Baghdad.
Prime Minister Iyad Allawi traveled to Al-Najaf on 8 August to meet with officials there, and threatened to forcibly remove the militiamen if they did not leave the holy city. Allawi appeared to offer al-Sadr an opportunity to "save face" by telling journalists later that day in Baghdad that he was not sure that the Al-Najaf fighters were even linked to the cleric. Al-Sadr remained defiant. His aide, Hazim al-A'raji told Al-Jazeera on 8 August that the Imam Al-Mahdi Army would not leave Al-Najaf unless ordered to do so by the religious authorities there. On 9 August, al-Sadr pledged to remain and fight multinational forces "until the last drop of my blood," Al-Arabiyah reported.
The standoff appeared to drive a wedge among members of the interim administration. Vice President Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, a prominent member of the Shi'ite Al-Da'wah Party, called on U.S. forces to leave Al-Najaf on 11 August, telling Al-Jazeera: "Iraqi forces can administer Al-Najaf to end this phenomenon of violence in this city that is holy to all Muslims." Prime Minister Allawi appeared to have a different plan in mind: on 12 August, Iraqi and U.S. forces launched a major offensive on al-Sadr positions in Al-Najaf. The Health Ministry reported on that day that 165 Iraqis were killed and 600 wounded in 24 hours of fighting between al-Sadr militiamen and Iraqi-U.S. forces across the country. Thousands of Iraqis in Al-Nasiriyah and Baghdad demonstrated in support of al-Sadr, who ignored a plea by the office of Ayatollah al-Sistani to end the conflict. Al-Sistani representative Hamid al-Khaffaf told Al-Jazeera on 12 August that the ayatollah had sent representatives to negotiate with al-Sadr.
The interim government also entered into talks with the cleric, Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib announced on 13 August. But Prime Minister Allawi pulled out of the talks on 14 August and fighting resumed the following day, which coincided with the convening of the Iraqi National Conference. Just minutes into the conference's opening session, delegates from the Shi'ite Council interrupted the proceedings to demand that the government resume talks with the cleric and ask him to participate in the political process. Al-Sadr has refused earlier attempts by Allawi to bring him into the political process. Shi'ite scholar Husayn al-Sadr, a distant relative of Muqtada, addressed the conference, and demanded that a committee be formed to find a solution to the standoff. Later that day, State Minister Wa'il Abd al-Latif announced that the government would resume talks with the cleric, but added that the door for negotiations would not remain open for long. "Once the deadline is over, the other position will be taken," he said.
A 50-member delegation comprising conference participants was organized to travel to Al-Najaf on 16 August. The trip was delayed, and on 17 August it was decided that eight members would be flown to Al-Najaf after intelligence reports indicated that militants were planning to ambush the delegation along the road to Al-Najaf. Al-Sadr remained in hiding however, and sent his representatives to meet with the delegation. After three hours, the group flew back to Baghdad empty-handed. The cleric's excuse? He was unable to meet the delegation because of security concerns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 August 2004). By then, al-Sadr had succeeded in disrupting the political process in the capital. The three-day conference would have to be extended for another day to allow delegates to vote on an interim assembly.
By 18 August, Allawi's administration appeared to have reached its threshold. Defense Minister Hazim al-Sha'lan told reporters that a "decisive battle" would take place that would remove militants from Al-Najaf. Heavy fighting was later reported throughout the city. By late afternoon, al-Sadr had announced that he would accept the delegation's proposal to leave the Imam Ali Mosque, dissolve his militia, and join the political process. In return, he would be guaranteed safe passage, and would not be arrested on an outstanding warrant for his purported involvement in the 10 April 2003 killing of Shi'ite Ayatollah Abd al-Majid al-Khoi. Al-Sadr failed to mention in his letter to the National Conference when his militiamen would leave the mosque.
The standoff with al-Sadr must be viewed within the context of his previous behavior. Al-Sadr militiamen battled U.S. and Iraqi forces for nearly eight weeks this spring. The cleric finally agreed to withdraw his militia from Al-Najaf in late May after ignoring an 18 May demand by Ayatollah al-Sistani to do so. Under a four-point agreement announced by National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i on 27 May, al-Sadr was to also withdraw his militiamen from all government buildings and allow the Iraqi police to return to their jobs; the militiamen had ransacked, looted, and even burned a number of police stations in the preceding weeks. The agreement also called for al-Sadr's militia to refrain from acting as self-appointed policemen. In turn, coalition forces would withdraw to their bases outside the city. The cleric's militia initially abided by the agreement, but soon resumed its assault on Iraqi police and multinational forces. U.S. military officials have often claimed that al-Sadr takes advantages of the breaks in fighting to regroup and rearm his forces.
Al-Sadr's behavior over the past 16 months has demonstrated that he is not a man of his word. He has back-tracked countless times and only makes concessions when confrontations come to a head. The events of the past two weeks will likely continue along the same pattern. The cleric has said countless times that he has no intention of joining the Iraqi political process. His remarks in a 15 May interview with Al-Arabiyah television might best summarize his perspective. When asked if he would turn his militia into a political group as part of a negotiated settlement, he said: "There is not change toward a political organization. [The Imam Al-Mahdi Army] can be neither dissolved nor turned into a political entity." When asked what he would do should U.S. forces storm the Imam Ali Mosque, al-Sadr said: "There will be time bombs to protect the [Imam Ali] mausoleum," adding, "I want one thing; namely, martyrdom."