Secretary of state Colin Powell is believed to have okayed a secret deal calculated to keep the radical section of the Iraq Shiite community in line.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report he signed off on an agreement negotiated by Najaf representatives of US administrator Paul Bremer with the 22-year-old firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, head of a private militia, the Mehdi Army.
Immediately after the Najaf car bombing and assassination of Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim on August 29, US forces scrambled to surround Sadr’s home and those of his deputies – as we reported at the time. They had orders to shoot anything that moved.
The American deployment had three aims:
To discover whether Sadr, who is supplied with money, guns and personnel by Iranian military intelligence, had a hand in the assassination. It turned out he did not.
To head off any attempt Sadr and his Mehdi Army might make to grab positions in Shiite power centers.
To put Sadr on notice that there were limitations on his behavior.
Sadr has boasted he commands tens of thousands of combatants. For the time being they are unarmed. But a word from their leader would put them on the streets carrying guns, especially in the slum districts of Baghdad. This Bremer is anxious to avoid at all costs.
Just before Powell’s visit, his agents forged an understanding with the turbulent young cleric. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iraqi sources, Sadr is permitted under its terms to speak freely at public appearances – and even to go on ranting and raging against the US administration and military in Iraq. US forces will also lift the siege of his home.
In return, Sadr has undertaken to keep his men unarmed.
US officials are confident he can deliver. Like the late Baqer, Sadr has absolute control of his men and commands their total obedience.
After Powell approved the agreement, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly went to press, US forces and Sadr began putting it into effect.
Among the majority Shiite population, therefore, the United States has managed to restore stability and stave off civil bloodshed in Baghdad. Iraqi’s Sunni Muslims are again thrown back and isolated in their “Iron Triangle” in the center of the country north of Baghdad. At the same time, small cracks have been driven in the Sunni wall. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report that both visiting US secretaries, Rumsfeld and Powell, approved the payment of tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars to Sunni tribal leaders if they promised not to permit guerrilla attacks to be launched against US troops from their lands.
Iraqi Sunnis are also cooperating with the Americans in managing oil, water and electrical facilities. But there is still a long way to go before it can be determined if the Americans are gaining the upper hand in Iraq or Saddam or Arab and al Qaeda guerrillas and saboteurs are managing to arrest the pacification of the country.