U.S. diplomats and military officers have been in talks with members of the armed movement loyal to Muqtada Sadr, a sharp reversal of policy and a grudging recognition that the radical Shiite cleric holds a dominant position in much of Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.
The secret dialogue has been going on since at least early 2006, but appeared to yield a tangible result only in the last week -- with relative calm in an area of west Baghdad that has been among the capital’s most dangerous sections.
The discussions have been complicated by divisions within Sadr’s movement as well as the cleric’s public vow never to meet with Iraq’s occupiers. Underlying the issue’s sensitivity, Sadrists publicly deny any contact with the Americans or British -- fully aware the price of acknowledging such meetings would be banishment from the movement or worse.
The dialogue represents a drastic turnaround in the U.S. approach to Sadr and his militia, the Mahdi Army. The military hopes to negotiate the same kind of marriage of convenience it has reached in other parts of Iraq with former insurgent groups, many Saddam Hussein loyalists, and the Sunni tribes that supported them. Both efforts are examples of how U.S. officials have sought to end violence by cooperating with groups they once considered intractable enemies.
In 2004, U.S. officials branded Sadr an outlaw and demanded his arrest, sparking two major Shiite revolts in Baghdad and in the southern shrine city of Najaf that left more than a thousand dead. Last year, as the Bush administration developed its “surge” strategy, military planners said the campaign would also target Shiite militias involved in sectarian killings. U.S. commanders later accused Iranian-backed elements of the Mahdi Army of carrying out deadly bomb attacks against U.S. forces and spearheading sectarian violence.
U.S. officials now feel they have no choice but to talk to the militia. Despite its internal rifts, the Sadr movement is widely seen as the most powerful force in Baghdad. The Mahdi Army’s grip is absolute on most of the capital’s Shiite neighborhoods, where it sells fuel and electricity and rents houses, and it has reached deep inside the army and police. U.S. soldiers have marveled at the movement’s ability to generate new leaders to replace almost every fighter they lock up.
U.S. officials fear that failure to reach a political compromise with the Sadrists could have severe consequences once U.S. forces begin to pull back from their current high levels.
“If there are no American troops and there is no American deal, the Mahdi Army seizes control of Baghdad. That’s the vision. It’s not a pleasant vision. It’s a really bad vision. In situations like this, the most extreme elements tend to predominate,” said a U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In his testimony to Congress on Monday, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, underscored the importance of reaching out to the Mahdi Army, deflecting a suggestion that the U.S. declare the movement a terrorist group.
“You’re not going to kill or capture all of the Sadr militia anymore than we are going to kill or capture all the insurgents in Iraq,” Petraeus said. “Some of this is a little bit distasteful. It’s not easy sitting across the table, let’s say, or drinking tea with someone whose tribal members may have shot at our forces or in fact drawn the blood -- killed our forces.”
The White House is keen for a breakthrough. “There’s a part of the Sadrist camp that is extremist and dedicated to killing us, and we need to kill them instead. But there are others who we think we might be able to work with,” said an administration official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Officials point to their negotiations with Sunni insurgents as a model. The Sunnis, however, cooperated in large part because they had split with Al Qaeda in Iraq militants and needed U.S. help to battle them. By contrast, the Sadrists have yet to decide that they want a clear break from their more radical and lawless elements.
Contacts with Sadr’s followers have included clandestine meetings with U.S. Embassy officials in the fortified Green Zone and encounters on the street between low-level militia commanders and U.S. captains.
This month’s breakthrough came when Lt. Col. Patrick Frank, responsible for west Baghdad’s dangerous Bayaa, Jihad and Amal neighborhoods, met Sept. 3 with tribal leaders belonging to the Mahdi Army at Camp Falcon, a sprawling U.S. base.
To preserve the movement’s posture of not negotiating with Americans, the tribal leaders did not discuss their affiliation, but their identity was well known. “The organization we are extending our hand to is the Jaish al Mahdi,” Frank said, using the group’s Arabic name. A Sadr follower in west Baghdad confirmed that Shiite and Sunni tribal leaders were in negotiations with the Americans for a truce in the area.
The session, which brought together commanders, community officials and mostly Shiite leaders, was the fruit of talks initiated by the Sadrists in late July, Frank said in an interview.
Moderate Sadrists involved in the Mahdi Army’s social service network contacted U.S. forces through intermediaries, Frank said. The region was largely Sunni until the Mahdi Army began driving out residents and replacing them with Shiites last year.
Since then, residents had grown unhappy that their neighborhood was the stage for shootouts and bombings. Some Sadr loyalists started passing tips to the Americans on militants.
An opening for wider talks came with Sadr’s announcement nearly two weeks ago that his militia would halt operations for six months to give it time to weed out alleged rogue elements. That call was in response to fighting between Sadr’s followers and another Shiite militia in the holy city of Karbala that left 52 dead.
“Once Muqtada Sadr issued his call for six months of nonviolence, we thought that went hand in hand with the initiative we were attempting to start,” Frank said. “It did give us an opportunity that was very helpful to the discussion effort.”
When they met, Frank proposed the Sadrists stop attacks for two weeks. In exchange, he said the Americans would consider reducing their raids in the district. The Sadr representatives relayed the plan back to Mahdi Army brigade and company commanders and violence dropped last week, the commander said.
Frank has no illusions that peace is suddenly at hand. “We understand that it may be cyclical. Reconciliation efforts may occur many times. We may see a spike in contact between militant Jaish al Mahdi, Iraqi security forces and the coalition forces and then move back into a reconciliation process.
“We have to craft a way ahead. We have to find a workable solution with the community leaders, the religious leaders and essentially the local political leaders within Jaish al Mahdi,” he added.
As in the talks with Sunni sheiks and armed groups in Anbar province, in western Iraq, U.S. officials who have met with Sadrists and their intermediaries have sought to convince them that the United States has no interest in occupying Iraq and that cooperating with the military will expedite its departure.
“The idea was clearly, ‘Your violence is increasing the time we will be here . . . if you want to stop this, lets talk,’ ” a second U.S. diplomat said. “With the Sunnis, it took over a year and a half for it to generate the kind of momentum it has.”
How far the contacts with the Sadrists can go may depend on a debate that militia members say is raging within their movement. Lawmaker and Sadr loyalist Qusay Abdul Wahab said the truce aimed to make a clear distinction between the Mahdi Army and fighters who had used the group as a cover for killings and other crimes.
“Those who do not obey the Sadr office will surface. The Iraqi security forces will go after them,” he said, adding it was acceptable for U.S. forces to do the same.
A street commander in Sadr City put the policy this way: “Anyone who fights the Americans now is not from the Mahdi Army. Muqtada Sadr sent this order to freeze the Mahdi Army for just one reason: to distinguish between good and bad Mahdi Army members.”
The fighter vowed that the militia would punish anyone who took advantage of the militia’s name. “If we catch any of them, they will be tried, interrogated and they will be punished and treated as bandits,” he said, adding that the militia recently captured 10 Iranians with Al Qaeda operatives in eastern Diyala province and punished them. “We dealt with them,” he said, smiling and refusing to say what they had done.
The fighter’s next remarks, however, were a quick reminder of the long road the Americans have to travel before they enjoy a partnership with Sadr’s movement.
“Anyone who collaborates with the Americans will be considered a traitor,” the fighter warned.
Times staff writers Doyle McManus and Julian E. Barnes in Washington and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.