BAGHDAD — U.S. diplomats and military officers have been in talks with members of the armed movement loyal to Muqtada Sadr, a sharp reversal of policy and a grudging recognition that the radical Shiite cleric holds a dominant position in much of Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.
The secret dialogue has been going on since at least early 2006, but appeared to yield a tangible result only in the last week -- with relative calm in an area of west Baghdad that has been among the capital's most dangerous sections.
The discussions have been complicated by divisions within Sadr's movement as well as the cleric's public vow never to meet with Iraq's occupiers. Underlying the issue's sensitivity, Sadrists publicly deny any contact with the Americans or British -- fully aware the price of acknowledging such meetings would be banishment from the movement or worse.
The dialogue represents a drastic turnaround in the U.S. approach to Sadr and his militia, the Mahdi Army. The military hopes to negotiate the same kind of marriage of convenience it has reached in other parts of Iraq with former insurgent groups, many Saddam Hussein loyalists, and the Sunni tribes that supported them. Both efforts are examples of how U.S. officials have sought to end violence by cooperating with groups they once considered intractable enemies.
In 2004, U.S. officials branded Sadr an outlaw and demanded his arrest, sparking two major Shiite revolts in Baghdad and in the southern shrine city of Najaf that left more than a thousand dead. Last year, as the Bush administration developed its "surge" strategy, military planners said the campaign would also target Shiite militias involved in sectarian killings. U.S. commanders later accused Iranian-backed elements of the Mahdi Army of carrying out deadly bomb attacks against U.S. forces and spearheading sectarian violence.
U.S. officials now feel they have no choice but to talk to the militia. Despite its internal rifts, the Sadr movement is widely seen as the most powerful force in Baghdad. The Mahdi Army's grip is absolute on most of the capital's Shiite neighborhoods, where it sells fuel and electricity and rents houses, and it has reached deep inside the army and police. U.S. soldiers have marveled at the movement's ability to generate new leaders to replace almost every fighter they lock up.
U.S. officials fear that failure to reach a political compromise with the Sadrists could have severe consequences once U.S. forces begin to pull back from their current high levels.
"If there are no American troops and there is no American deal, the Mahdi Army seizes control of Baghdad. That's the vision. It's not a pleasant vision. It's a really bad vision. In situations like this, the most extreme elements tend to predominate," said a U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In his testimony to Congress on Monday, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, underscored the importance of reaching out to the Mahdi Army, deflecting a suggestion that the U.S. declare the movement a terrorist group.
"You're not going to kill or capture all of the Sadr militia anymore than we are going to kill or capture all the insurgents in Iraq," Petraeus said. "Some of this is a little bit distasteful. It's not easy sitting across the table, let's say, or drinking tea with someone whose tribal members may have shot at our forces or in fact drawn the blood -- killed our forces."
The White House is keen for a breakthrough. "There's a part of the Sadrist camp that is extremist and dedicated to killing us, and we need to kill them instead. But there are others who we think we might be able to work with," said an administration official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Officials point to their negotiations with Sunni insurgents as a model. The Sunnis, however, cooperated in large part because they had split with Al Qaeda in Iraq militants and needed U.S. help to battle them. By contrast, the Sadrists have yet to decide that they want a clear break from their more radical and lawless elements.
Contacts with Sadr's followers have included clandestine meetings with U.S. Embassy officials in the fortified Green Zone and encounters on the street between low-level militia commanders and U.S. captains.
This month's breakthrough came when Lt. Col. Patrick Frank, responsible for west Baghdad's dangerous Bayaa, Jihad and Amal neighborhoods, met Sept. 3 with tribal leaders belonging to the Mahdi Army at Camp Falcon, a sprawling U.S. base.
To preserve the movement's posture of not negotiating with Americans, the tribal leaders did not discuss their affiliation, but their identity was well known. "The organization we are extending our hand to is the Jaish al Mahdi," Frank said, using the group's Arabic name. A Sadr follower in west Baghdad confirmed that Shiite and Sunni tribal leaders were in negotiations with the Americans for a truce in the area.