Jan 25, 2007

Mahdi Army Meeting With Coalition Officials

This is an extremely sensitive subject -- ongoing U.S. negotiations with the enemy in Iraq -- which we last addressed here in December (see Details of High-Level US Talks With Iraqi Insurgent Groups)

There is a new report today that Moqtada al-Sadr's Jaish al Mahdi has used political contacts to deliver a set of conditions that must be met if the U.S.-led coalition expects to avoid serious problems with President Bush's "surge" plan.

An Iraqi official authorized to speak on behalf of field commanders for the country’s most powerful militia has approached Western military officials and laid out a plan to avoid armed confrontation, senior Iraqi and American officials said this week.

The official is Rahim al-Daraji, the elected mayor of the Sadr City district, the vast grid in the northeast corner of the capital that is the stronghold of the militia, the Mahdi Army. Mr. Daraji has met twice in the past two weeks with Lt. Gen. Graeme Lamb, a British officer who is the deputy commanding general in Iraq, said a senior Iraqi official in the office of the prime minister.

During the meetings, which took place on Jan. 17 and, most recently, on Monday, Mr. Daraji laid out a proposal from what he said were all the major political and militia groups in Sadr City, the senior Iraqi official said. The groups were eager to head off a major American military offensive in the district, home to two million Shiites, as the Americans begin a sweeping new effort to retake the streets of Baghdad.

Mr. Daraji said in an interview that field commanders would forbid their foot soldiers to carry guns in public if the American military and the Iraqi government met several basic demands, mostly involving ways to ensure better security for Sadr City. He is communicating with the commanders through a Shiite politician who is close to them. ...

The talks appeared to have been the first between an intermediary for the Mahdi militia and a senior commander from the American effort. The military fought the militia twice in 2004, and the militia's leader, Moktada al-Sadr, a renegade cleric who is virulently anti-American, has resolutely refused to meet with American officials of any kind. ...

The meetings were very preliminary, officials stressed, and came as the American military was stepping up pressure on Mr. Sadr's militia. It was not clear how American officials received the efforts. They are already making some headway against Shiite militias without help from Mr. Daraji and his supporters.

A spokesman for General Lamb declined to comment. "The general meets with a number of people in the course of his duty," he said. "We respect the confidence of those meetings."

The American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, confirmed that meetings had taken place and said that Mr. Daraji had told representatives from the American Embassy and from the military that local residents would not challenge weapons searches by American soldiers. ...

Mr. Daraji said he represented 14 political and military groups in Sadr City. He said local residents, including Mahdi Army commanders, wanted to find ways to work with the Americans to avoid any large-scale confrontation. Commanders would tell militiamen to keep their weapons off the streets, he said, if Americans agreed to certain demands.

Some of the actions Mr. Daraji said he had requested in exchange for the promises from the militias seemed likely to draw stony stares from American military officials, namely to stop conducting raids in Sadr City and to release a number of those who had been arrested.

But other demands — to provide jobs for Sadr City residents, to bring in new construction projects and to triple the number of police stations there — seemed more realistic.

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