Muqtada Negotiates with Head of Secret Police
az-Zaman reports that a new round of negotiations has begun with Muqtada al-Sadr, this time conducted directly by Maj. General Muhammad al-Shahwani, the new head of the Iraqi secret police (Mukhabarat). This news rather amazes me and seems a sign of desperation on both sides. Ali Allawi, the new head of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, clearly wants to build a future political career by bringing order to the country. He appears to be willing even to talk to Muqtada al-Sadr if necessary, rather than dismissing the young radical as irrelevant or as a thug. On the other hand, it surprises me that Muqtada would speak to Shahwani, a Sunni from Mosul who had been a Baathist until 1984. Admittedly, since then Shahwani has been trying to overthrow Saddam and he lost three sons to Saddam’s assassins.
az-Zaman says that the Grand Ayatollahs in Najaf called on Muqtada to tell his people to lay down their arms. This is the most direct intervention of Sistani and his colleagues in the crisis yet. (Muqtada’s militiamen paid no heed to the call). It is not clear to me whether it is referring to the document signed by 150 notables, at a conference arranged by Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, to which Sistani representatives were sent; or whether this is actually a fatwa.
As reported here on Wednesday afternoon, US troops clashed with Muqtada’s Army of the Mahdi repeatedly on Tuesday night an throughout Wednesday, in Najaf, Karbala, and Diwaniyah, leaving several US troops dead or wounded, and larger numbers of Mahdi Army fighters in these conditions. The US strategy appears to be to crack down on the militia itself throughout the south while allowing Iraqi authorities to negotiate Muqtada’s surrender, in hopes they can pick off the provincial and municipal leadership of the movement without provoking another major uprising if they do not touch Muqtada for the moment.
One problem: Aaron Glantz’s interview with Hashim As-Safi suggests that the recent US raid on a conference at al-Hilla may have harmed non-violent Shiite leaders and groups even as they went after the Sadrists in the audience. If true, this anecdote is further evidence of the way in which the heavy-handed approach of the US army is producing guerrillas faster than they can be killed.
The prison abuse scandal has deeply harmed the political standing of the Americans, who have been campaigning against Muqtada and his movement on the grounds that they are thuggish and abuse people and harm Iraqi human rights. Hamza Hendawi reports, ‘ ”For those who thought the United States respected human rights and championed freedom, the picture should be very clear now,” Abbas al-Robai, a close al-Sadr aide, said about the Abu Ghraib scandal. Iraqis’ aversion to the United States, he added, was somewhat reduced after Saddam’s removal but ”now, it’s stronger than any time before.” ‘
Meanwhile, former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani warned the Americans via al-Hayat not to invade Najaf. He said if the Americans would agree to leave Iraq, Iran would pledge to cooperate in ensuring stability as it had done, he said, in Afghanistan.