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Iraqi Militias to Disband, Join Official Forces

Deal covers 100,000 fighters but allows some Kurdish factions to retain troops. Rebels, such as the Al Mahdi army, are excluded.

June 08, 2004|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — U.S. officials and leaders of Iraq's new government on Monday announced a long-sought deal to integrate about 100,000 fighters belonging to private militias into the army and police, an arrangement that seeks to bolster the central government in advance of the U.S. transfer of sovereignty later this month.

U.S. and Iraqi officials hope that the agreement will reduce the threat of civil war when the U.S. occupation ends. Although the accord moves closer toward forming a representative Iraqi army reflecting Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish groups, it also allows pro-U.S. Kurds to keep under their command a significant number of fighters. That arrangement could spark friction among Shiites and Sunnis wary that an armed Kurdish force could potentially push for independence.

The accord does not cover the dogged Iraqi insurgency, including the Al Mahdi militia of Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr, which has been battling U.S. troops in a Baghdad slum and southern Iraq.

Without naming individuals or groups, Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi declared "as of now, all armed forces out of state control ... are illegal [and] will be dealt with harshly."

The agreement bars all other "members of illegal armed forces or militias" from political office or involvement in campaigns for three years.

A U.S. official, when asked what this meant for Sadr, said the cleric's militia "has been attempting to shoot its way into politics" and that its members' "status under this order is clear. They are an illegal armed force, if there had been any doubt about that before today."

Sadr's fighters have fought lengthy battles with U.S. troops in the holy cities of Najaf and Kufa and Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood, a slum named after the cleric's father, a popular Shiite leader assassinated by Saddam Hussein's regime.

The younger Sadr is wanted for his alleged role in the killing of a rival imam. U.S. forces had called for his killing or capture, but have not repeated the demand in recent weeks.

Sadr was not invited to the talks leading to the agreement, and would not be allowed to take part in the deal even if he wanted, an official with the U.S.-led coalition said.

After hundreds of his fighters were killed in battles with U.S. troops, Sadr made some conciliatory gestures last week. His fighters suspended attacks in Najaf, and Sadr's staff members told Arab media that their leader had met with Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The ayatollah, considered a moderate, has not acknowledged the meeting.

Disbanding the militias had been an early goal of U.S. military officials. But Iraqi factions, including those friendly to the U.S., clung to their forces, waiting to see how power would be shared in post-occupation Iraq.

Last week, an interim Iraqi government was announced. It represented a delicate mix of the country's main ethnic and religious groups.

The U.S. military will seek to shore up the newly appointed government and restore some semblance of security even after the June 30 hand-over. The U.N. Security Council is expected to consider a resolution today that would give Iraq's interim government the right to ask a multinational force to leave at any time.

While the accord announced Monday was aimed partly at isolating Sadr, it also bolstered Iraq's pro-U.S. Kurdish minority -- which has more soldiers than the current Iraqi army -- by allowing it to retain command over a portion of its troops.

Kurds constitute 19% of the Iraqi population. A U.S. no-fly zone set up after the 1991 Persian Gulf War protected their territory in northern Iraq, allowing a largely autonomous pro-Western entity to flourish.

After decades of Baath Party assaults and chemical weapons attacks in 1988, Kurds want to retain their own army, but some Shiite and Sunni leaders are opposed to this.

A U.S. official, who spoke to reporters on condition he not be named, said two Kurdish peshmerga militias were treated differently because they resembled standing armies in contrast to seven other militias, which provided security for political parties. The official said he believed a majority of 45,000 Kurdish troops would join Iraqi military or police units but that a sizable number would serve in Kurdish-controlled armed forces.

Rosh Shawais, a Kurd who is one of Iraq's two vice presidents, said Kurds were satisfied.

Under the agreement, militia fighters who do not retire or accept job training must apply to three military agencies: the Iraqi army, Iraqi police or the Kurdish Internal Security Services. A small number -- fewer than 5,000 -- would work for private security firms regulated by the Interior Ministry.

The U.S. official said the requirement that troops apply individually to the new armed forces was intended to prevent militia units from simply donning a new uniform and remaining together.

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