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Rebel Cleric May Have Emerged the Winner

Iraq's interim premier and U.S. forces have no guarantee that Muqtada Sadr will stop fighting.

August 28, 2004|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Having returned from his sick bed to broker a peace deal freeing Najaf's sacred mosque of rebel fighters, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani appears to have grown into a larger-than-life figure, the one man who could end the deadly conflict between an upstart cleric and the Iraqi government and its U.S. backers.

To win the agreement, Sistani displayed both his moral authority and his ability to rouse a mass movement of supporters literally overnight.

But at the same time that Sistani burnished his image as the preeminent Shiite Muslim leader in a nation with a Shiite majority, it was anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr who may have walked away with the best deal: A man accused of being an accessory to murder, Sadr left the mosque with amnesty for any crimes he might have committed, an invitation to join in national politics, and freedom for his militiamen, many of whom remained heavily armed.

Left in a weaker position were interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and the U.S.-led military forces that back him. Allawi got no guarantee that Sadr would desist from armed activities outside Najaf and neighboring Kufa, leaving open the distinct possibility that he would remobilize his forces and remain, at the least, a thorn in the government's side.

As for American soldiers, they will leave Najaf under the terms of the deal brokered by Sistani a day after he returned home from three weeks of medical treatment in Britain.

It was the second time in less than three months that the Americans were unable to put a firm end to Sadr and his forces. In June, the cleric agreed to leave the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf without a formal deal being struck, and he and his forces later returned. U.S. troops similarly withdrew from Fallouja after a Sunni Muslim insurgency during the spring.

The pact brokered by Sistani makes Najaf and Kufa, like Fallouja, in effect a no-go zone for U.S. troops.

Key elements of Sistani's deal include the requirements that Najaf and Kufa become weapons-free zones and that armed groups there leave and never return. Under the deal, Iraqi police will be responsible for law enforcement, all foreign troops will leave both cities, and the Iraqi government will compensate Najaf residents for damage from the fighting. Sistani also requested that a census be taken before an Iraqi national election -- a move intended to hold the Allawi government to its promise of having a vote early next year.

Although largely framed as a face-off between Sadr and the U.S. military, the drama that unfolded in Najaf during the last three weeks was in essence a public display of internal Shiite politics. What has been at stake is the ultimate leadership of Iraq's Shiite majority.

Sistani, Sadr and Allawi are all Shiites, and each represents a major strain of the dominant sect. Allawi speaks for secularists. Sistani appears to represent a moderate religious element comfortable with a secular government as long as it is sensitive to Shiite interests. Sadr speaks for fundamentalist Shiites whose main platform is opposition to a foreign military or political presence in Iraq.

"This has been all about Shia politics," said a Western diplomat who worked in Iraq until recently and speaks Arabic. "And it's about the authority of the state, and that's still playing out."

Far from constricting Sadr, the deal brokered by Sistani gave him much of what he wanted -- except for the shrine, which shielded him and his Al Mahdi militia from the military might of U.S. forces and the interim Iraqi government.

Although Sistani looked Friday like the consummate power broker, he still must contend with Sadr, who has been willing to threaten him and publicly insult his gradualist approach of moving toward elections under the U.S. eye.

Moreover, Allawi and the Americans failed to get what they wanted most: an end to Sadr. In addition, the Americans, who did much of the fighting against the militia, looked to some as destroyers of the Old City of Najaf and as killers of civilians -- usually inadvertently -- and young Sadr militiamen.

Even before day's end Friday, Sadr's assistants again were talking tough and gloating about having triumphed.

"There is a victory, a very great victory, because we didn't hand our weapons to the government or the occupation authorities," said Sheik Ahmed Shibani, a key Sadr lieutenant. "The Mahdi army pulled out from the city. We proved that the Mahdi army cannot be disarmed and will never be disarmed, and this is a victory.

"They have been kissing our hands to get us to participate in politics, but competing in an election under occupation is not possible," he said.

There is considerable resentment of Sadr, particularly among residents of the battered holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, where his rebellion has wreaked havoc on the economy by halting the flow of pilgrims. But it remains to be seen whether Sistani's supporters, who are generally reluctant to speak out against Sadr, will act to restrain the rebel cleric in the months ahead.

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