Negotiations Begin with Radical Shiite Leader

Since Wednesday, April 7, four Shiite delegations have been in secret negotiation with radical Shiite leader Moqtada Sadr in Najef for an end to the uprising he instigated five days ago in a half a dozen Iraqi cities including Baghdad. This is reported exclusively by debkafile‘s intelligence and Iraqi sources. The four groups represent the Shiite Dawa Party, the Islamic Action Party, Shiite members of the provisional Iraq Governing Council and SCIRI, the faction headed by council member Abdel Aziz al Hakim, brother of the Grand Ayatollah who was assassinated last year in Najef. No Americans are in direct talks with the outlawed Shiite firebrand, but the negotiating teams are in continuous communication with US administration heads in Baghdad.
America’s handling of the radical Shiite uprising is going forward on two levels:
The military level:
Fresh US divisions newly arrived in the country are overlapping with the divisions which have been held back from ending their one-year stint in order to boost the coalition’s military effort to stamp out spiraling Sunni and Shiite violence. Coalition strength stands now at 145,000-strong, of which 125,000 are US troops. They are availed of immense armored and aerial firepower for combat against the Shiite militia in the south, the Sunni insurgents in central Iraq and al Qaeda and foreign combatants on both fronts. There are also the first makings of anti-US Sunni-Shiite coordination, as confirmed by Iraqi commander Gen. Ricardo Sanchez in his press briefing Thursday, April 8 – in Baghdad, northern parts of the Sunni Triangle near Kirkuk and a number of East Iraqi cities in the vicinity of the Iranian border.
The administrative-political level:
The four Shiite teams talking to Sadr in Najaf is one channel. Another is the instigation of a stream of missives from a group of Iranian ayatollahs centered in the holy city of Qom and jointly opposed to the hard-line regime in Tehran. These respected clerics are urging Sadr to give up violence and reach terms with the US-led coalition. debkafile‘s Tehran sources report the first of these letters has been sent out by Ayatollah Hosseini Shirazi.
The four Shiite teams talking to the maverick cleric in Najef are pitching the following arguments:
US intelligence has evidence that the hands behind the Shiite uprising belong to Iran and the Lebanese Hizballah, operating through the veteran Lebanese arch terrorist Imad Mughniyeh. They advise the 31-year old Shiite rebel to look over his shoulder, because he will then discover that he was tossed onto the Iraqi warfront to fight alone without the promised support structure for himself and his Mehdi Army militia. He is warned most solemnly that if he continues along the road of fire and blood, the Americans are determined to eliminate him with the hard core of his following and his militia. The continuation of the US offensive against his forces will leave a bloody mark on the entire Iraqi Shiite community and Sadr will be blamed for the calamity.
This line of persuasion rests on two US intelligence assessments:
1. Indications that Sadr and his men are themselves overwhelmed by the consequences of their revolt and reluctant to press on with fresh military initiatives. That judgment was refuted almost as soon as it was formulated by initial reports of a Shiite radical strike Wednesday against a new target, Japanese forces, in a new location, the Sunni Triangle city of Samarra.
2. The Mehdi Army was seen to fall back on more than one front. While retaining its grip on Najef, Diwaniyeh and al Kut, its commanders struck deals in Nasseriyeh with the Italians and Basra with British forces to hand over town centers. Furthermore, on Wednesday, April 7, Shiite forces managed to besiege the Polish base in Karbala and were poised to move in to attack when at the last moment they pulled back. They had heard that US fighter jets and helicopters were on their way to strike them. US analysts misread those signals. On Thursday, the Shiite withdrawals turned out to have been tactical. Shiite militiamen returned to the battle against Polish and Bulgarian troops and opened up new war arenas.
It is clear to the negotiating teams and the Americans that no real momentum will be achieved in the talks before the Shiite Arbain observance in the coming weekend, where between two and three million pilgrims are awaited in Karbala, most of them Iranian. Many will also step over to visit the shrines of Najef, obliging the Americans to leave a clear field for Sadr in the two Shiite shrine cities and the roads linking them.
For the moment, the Shiite rebel leader has four large incentives for dragging out the negotiations as long as possible:
A. The opening day of the Arbain observance is proclaimed only after authorized imams determine the moon has reached the correct angle over Iraq. This leaves the Arbain date up in the air and at the discretion of Sadr and his ability to obtain a determination that fits his strategy.
B. He also needs time to see if the Iranians make good on their promise to pump reinforcements and arms to his militia under cover of the mass pilgrimage. He will not get his answer before the weekend or early next week.
C. A spark could inflame the millions of Shiite pilgrims and send them on a jihadist rampage against US and coalition bases across southern Iraq. The Americans, pinned down by Sunni insurgents north and west of Baghdad, do not command sufficient strength close by to stem a mass stampede of potential suicides. That threat Sadr still holds over coalition heads.
D. The Shiite cleric will profit from extra time also to continue to cultivate his militia’s operational ties with Sunni insurgent forces battling the Americans, especially in Fallujah and Ramadi. Gen. Sanchez confirmed Thursday there is coordination “at the lowest level” and said it must be contained.
Also Thursday, mixed Sunni-Shiite groups in Baghdad and surrounding cities began organizing for a march to bring food and aid to the “injured and hungry” population of besieged Fallujah. Muezzins of Baghdad’s Sadr City called on Shiites to donate blood. Aid convoys began flowing to the embattled Sunni Triangle town. They are believed to be the advance guard for tens of thousands of civilians to swarm through the city and disrupt the US anti-insurgency offensive. Any interference would be condemned at once as “human rights abuses.” General Sanchez hastened to assure the assembled media Thursday that “the people of Fallujah would not be cut off from humanitarian aid.”
On all four grounds, it is hard to imagine US-backed Shiite negotiating process getting very far before early next week.
The Sunni warfront focuses mainly on Fallujah where Thursday saw intense street combat between US Marines, who suffered 3 dead and many wounded, and a new Iraqi guerrilla force. debkafile‘s military sources report that the new Al Farouk Battalions are made up of ex-officers and NCOs from crack units of Saddam’s Special Republic Guards, who were barred from joining the New Iraqi Army, and al Qaeda elements. They have recently acquired advanced rocket-propelled grenades smuggled in from Lebanon and Syria.

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