Monday, March 31, 2008

Iranian General Played Key Role in Brokering Iraq Cease-Fire

by Leila Fadel for McClatchy Newspapers

Iraqi lawmakers traveled to the Iranian holy city of Qom over the weekend to win the support of the commander of Iran's Qods brigades in persuading Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr to order his followers to stop military operations, members of the Iraqi parliament said.

Sadr ordered the halt on Sunday, and his Mahdi Army militia heeded the order in Baghdad, where the Iraqi government announced it would lift a 24-hour curfew starting early Monday in most parts of the capital.

But fighting continued in the oil hub of Basra, where a six-day-old government offensive against Shiite militias has had only limited gains.

So far, 488 people have been killed and more than 900 wounded in the offensive, Iraqi Interior Ministry officials said.

The backdrop to Sadr's dramatic statement was a secret trip Friday by Iraqi lawmakers to Qom, Iran's holy city and headquarters for the Iranian clergy who run the country.

There the Iraqi lawmakers held talks with Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Qods (Jerusalem) brigades of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps and signed an agreement with Sadr, which formed the basis of his statement Sunday, members of parliament said.

Ali al Adeeb, a member of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's Dawa party, and Hadi al Ameri, the head of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, had two aims, lawmakers said: to ask Sadr to stand down his militia and to ask Iranian officials to stop supplying weapons to Shiite militants in Iraq.

"The statement issued today by (Muqtada al Sadr) is a result of the meetings," said Jalal al-Din al Saghir, a leading member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. "The government didn't have any disagreement with the Sadrists when it went to the city of Basra. The Sadrist movement is the one that chose to face the government."

"We asked Iranian officials to help us persuade him that we were not cracking down on the Sadr group," said an Iraqi official, who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

He described the talks as successful but said hard-line Sadrists could goad the government into over-reacting and convince Sadr that the true aim of the Iraqi Security Forces is to destroy the Sadrists.

"I will not be surprised if the whole thing collapses," he said.

In addition to Sadr, who is in Qom pursuing religious studies, Iraqi lawmakers met Suleimani, said Osama al Nejafi, a legislator on the parliamentary committee formed to solve the Basra crisis.

"An agreement was signed," Nejafi said, referring to Sadr. "Iran was part of the problem and an effective part of the negotiations."

Sadr issued a nine-point statement Sunday saying he would renounce anyone who carried arms against the government and government forces. The statement also asked the government to halt all raids against the Mahdi army, end detentions of militia members who had not been charged and implement the general amnesty law.

To preserve the "unity" of Iraq Sadr called for an end to "all armed manifestations in Basra and in all provinces."

The Qom discussions may or may not bring an end to the fighting but they almost certainly have undermined Maliki - who made repeated declarations that there would be no negotiations and that he would treat as outlaws those who did not turn in their weapons for cash. The blow to his own credibility was worsened by the fact that members of his own party had helped organize the Iran initiative.

"The delegation was from the United Iraqi Alliance (dominated by the Dawa party and the Supreme Council of Iraq), and the Prime Minister was only informed. It was a political maneuver by us," said Haider al Abadi, a legislator from Maliki's Dawa party. "We had evidence (that Muqtada and Iranian-backed militants were fighting security forces) and we sent people urgently...If we had been waiting for one year in Baghdad we wouldn't have had this result." The delegation is expected to return to Iraq Monday.

Maliki welcomed Sadr's statement as a positive development, said his advisor Sadiq al Rikabi. Anyone who abandons weapons and goes home would not be pursued, he said, adding that the offensive would continue against a list specific targets, but he would not give details, Maliki -- who had said he would not leave Basra until the Shiite militias were defeated -- was expected to remain in Basra for a few more days, he said.

Following Sadr's announcement a curfew was lifted in most of the capital, while the Sadr controlled areas of Sadr City, New Baghdad and Kadhemiya remained under 24-hour lockdown. The U.S. military still surrounded the Shiite slum of Sadr City, named for Sadr's father and a stronghold of support for Sadr. It was still unclear what the effect the statement had Sunday night.

In another blow to Maliki, his security advisor, Saleem Qassim al Taee, known as Abu Laith Al-Kadhimi, was killed in the fighting in Basra. The Dawa party member had lived in exile under Saddam's regime for 20 years.

"With great sorrow the prime minister's office mourns one of its employees," it said in a statement. "(He) was killed by a treacherous shell during his national duty which was launched by criminal hands who are stained by crime and killing."

In Basra Mahdi Army militants fought to keep their strongholds but were overrun by Iraqi Security Force in the eastern neighborhood of Tanuma. U.S. and British aircraft conducted four air strikes in the city, the U.S. military said. In downtown Basra in the area of al Timimiyah Iraqi forces surrounded the neighborhood as coalition aircraft struck Sunday morning, residents said.

But the Iraqi security forces still couldn't penetrate the vast Shiite slum of Hayaniyah or al Qibla, two Mahdi Army stronghold of Basra.

Following Sadr's statement both the Sadr office in Basra and Sadr City said that their fighters would obey the orders and go home. But militants on the ground in Basra said they would continue to fight in self-defense.

"We will stay in our positions because the government didn't stop the raids and the attacks against the Mahdi Army and their areas," Abu Muamal said. "We are waiting for clear orders from our command and we will not withdraw until the situation is clarified."

McClatchy Special Correspondents Ali al Basri contributed from Basra, Qassim Zein from Najaf and Laith Hammoudi from Baghdad.