Cleric's insurgents in Sadr City agree to terms of truce

They will surrender heavy weapons if U.S. ceases its offensives

October 10, 2004|By Colin McMahon | Colin McMahon,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Militia fighters loyal to a defiant Shiite cleric promised yesterday to lay down their heavy weapons in the Sadr City area of Baghdad, a potential victory for Iraqi officials eager to impose stability ahead of national elections.

The agreement, due to go into effect tomorrow, could set the stage for Muqtada al-Sadr to disband his al-Mahdi Army and turn it into a political organization. Aides to the Shiite cleric have been discussing the political path with Iraqi authorities. But al-Sadr remains an unpredictable figure and, to U.S. officials, an untrustworthy one.

Al-Sadr did not comment yesterday on the cease-fire deal, which was announced by an al-Sadr aide and confirmed by Iraqi and American officials.

Under the agreement, U.S. forces will end their offensives into Sadr City, and Iraqi police and national guard units will move in. But the truce does not bar American troops from Sadr City, a key demand of U.S. forces who say there can no longer be any "no-go" zones for them in Iraq.

The deal came as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, meeting yesterday with defense officials from 18 other nations, acknowledged that more U.S. forces might be sent to Iraq in the run-up to national elections, scheduled for January.

U.S. military commanders had expressed hope that enough Iraqi security forces would be trained, equipped and deployed by then to keep order. But Rumsfeld, aboard an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, said his generals might have to request more U.S. forces to add to the at least 134,000 now on the ground in Iraq.

Though large portions of Iraq are calm, several towns and parts of some cities are under insurgent control or home to frequent guerrilla attacks, ambushes, car-bombings and kidnappings.

The killing of hostage Kenneth Bigley, the British engineer beheaded Friday in Latifiyah, was the latest setback to U.S.-led efforts to impose security on Iraq and start rebuilding the battered country.

British news media reported yesterday that Bigley, apparently with the help of one of his captors, had escaped briefly before the kidnappers found him and cut off his head. The Associated Press reported that a masked gunman claiming to be familiar with Bigley's kidnappers said the captors found Bigley in a deserted area after an earlier house-to-house search failed to locate him.

The region around Latifiyah, like Sadr City in Baghdad and Fallujah west of the capital, is one of more than a dozen areas where Iraqi officials hope a mix of military power and negotiations with local leaders will bring enough stability to hold free elections.

The Sadr City cease-fire followed weeks of fighting and weeks of talks among Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's interim government, tribal leaders and al-Sadr aides. U.S. officials took part in the final negotiations as well.

Iraqi officials are also talking with leaders from Fallujah, widely expected to be the toughest place to placate or defeat militarily.

If the Sadr City truce starts, and holds, it would provide a major boost to the government's electoral efforts while relieving U.S. forces of one of the more violent and frustrating bastions of the Iraqi insurgency.

The eastern Baghdad slum of more than 2 million people, which is named for al-Sadr's father, is the scene of daily al-Mahdi Army attacks on American and Iraqi security patrols. U.S. forces have responded with devastating firepower, including bombing raids, and American officials say the attacks have taken a heavy toll on the Shiite fighters.

The American strikes have also killed civilians, however. And they have fueled resentment among Sadr City residents who may not think much of al-Sadr as a religious figure but respect his stand against U.S. soldiers they view as occupiers.

Even as talks were wrapping up yesterday, al-Mahdi fighters clashed with U.S. forces.

"The American troops didn't respect the truce," said Abbas Bader, a 25-year-old Sadr City pharmacist. "They bombed the city today early in the morning. The bombing continued all afternoon while I was reading the subtitles on Iraqi TV talking about the agreement."

Under the deal, al-Mahdi Army fighters will have five days, starting tomorrow, to turn in their mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and other heavy weapons. It's a buy-back program, so the fighters will be paid in return. They get to keep their Kalashnikov rifles and other assault rifles.

Iraqi security forces will patrol all of Sadr City and have the right to search residences for weapons, sources said. U.S. forces will maintain a presence and conduct patrols. And they will not hold back if fired upon, a U.S. official said last night.

This is a key element for the Americans, who have declared unfettered access as non-negotiable. This would also represent a step back for al-Sadr, who portrays his armed opposition as a legitimate fight not so much against the interim Iraqi government but against the foreign army that installed it.

In return, the United States has released two top al-Sadr aides, and more detainees are expected to be freed.

U.S.-led forces will also immediately resume reconstruction projects with the goal of improving Sadr City's woeful infrastructure and employing some of the thousands of young men who call the slum home.

Al-Sadr has not pledged to disband his militia. Nor has he made any public statements about running for office or creating a political party. But his al-Mahdi Army was pummeled during heavy fighting in Najaf, and his fighters were forced to abandon the holy city under pressure from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Now there is hope that al-Mahdi fighters will disarm in other Iraqi cities - Basra in the south, particularly - where al-Sadr has support.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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