Courting Muqtada

A delegation of parliamentarians is dispatched to negotiate with the radical cleric.

Courting Muqtada

A delegation of parliamentarians is dispatched to negotiate with the radical cleric.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Shia cleric Hussein al-Sadr smiled broadly as he announced the departure of a peace delegation to meet his distant cousin Muqtada al-Sadr, the radical cleric besieged in the holy city of Najaf together with his militant followers.

"If our demands are met, you can anticipate good news," said Hussein al-Sadr, speaking on August 17, as he announced the terms issued by Iraq's National Conference, a meeting which had convened two days earlier to elect the new Iraqi parliament but was forced by events to turn its attention to the Shia rebellion.

In an effort to end the stand-off with Muqtada, the National Conference spelled out a set of conditions: the cleric must end his two-week long rebellion, evacuate the shrine of the Imam Ali, disband his Mahdi Army militia and begin political work.

The 1,100 delegates – which included robed Arab tribesmen, Kurds in their traditional baggy trousers, turbaned Shia clerics and women in business suits and the hijab veil – originally had nothing to do with the problems surrounding Sadr.

But shortly after the Conference began, some Shia Islamist delegates seized the microphones to call for a solution to the confrontation in Najaf.

"We demand a halt to military operations in Najaf, and call on the Sadrists to join the conference," declared delegate Nadeem al-Jabari, as other voices shouted out their agreement.

Under pressure from the Islamists, the conference organisers - mainly allies of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi - allowed a resolution calling for a halt to the violence.

The next day, the organisers sponsored a second resolution, this time spelling out conditions which Muqtada should meet.

It was decided that the message should be delivered in person by a delegation of dignitaries headed by Hussein al-Sadr. Conference participants expressed the hope that a large showing would flatter the young cleric into accepting a settlement.

In the end, though, reports that insurgents were preparing an ambush on the road meant that the delegation had to travel by US military Black Hawk helicopters.

"I am not comfortable right now - I’d be lying to you if I said I was. If our mission succeeds I will be comfortable. This is an important visit," said Hussein al-Sadr as the delegation rested after landing in the US military base outside of Najaf.

While the group snacked on juice and cake provided by US Marines, battalion executive officer Major David Holohan apologised for what he saw as the rather basic level of army hospitality.

Major Holohan made repeated telephone calls to get an Iraqi police escort to accompany the delegation into the city, as explosions rumbled in the background.

"We are not attacking. We are defending ourselves,” Holohan told the delegation. “The Marines cannot be attacked and not reply. Anyone moving with a weapon in the old city is killed. We killed 60 people over the last 24 hours.".

Nearly two hours after the delegates arrived, they set off for the city centre in three vehicles, accompanied by three police Land Cruisers with sirens blaring.

Talk in the vehicles turned to the Sadrists.

"They are not human beings. They slaughtered a policeman and cut him to pieces," said police brigadier Amer Hamza, who bore a pistol wound on his elbow.

A police general said that the Sadrists had captured his 80-year old father.

The group soon arrived at Najaf's provincial governorate building, where hundreds of policemen stood on high alert behind barriers, their rifles aimed at the street.

The police escort procured white flags from inside the building, then set off again through Najaf's deserted streets.

At 1920 Square – named after the Shia revolt against British occupation - the convoy came under small-arms fire. It drove on through the attack, but as heavier fighting could be heard going on meant a detour to Kufa some 10km distant and controlled by the Mahdi Army.

The closer they got to Kufa, the more the atmosphere returned to normal. Cars and pedestrians were out on the streets, a few shops were open, and there were some young men playing football in a field.

The convoy stopped at a Mahdi Army checkpoint, and shortly afterwards arrived at Muqtada al-Sadr's office at the city's Bin Aqil shrine.

As members of the delegation stepped out of their cars, a crowd gathered chanting, "We will not forgive the traitors!" The crowd declared that both America and the Iraqi Governing Council that preceded Allawi's current government were “infidels”.

Some expressed their thanks to the delegation for coming, praising them as "supporters of Islam."

But one man expressed doubt, saying, "We hope the Americans didn't send you."

After conferring with Muqtada's representatives, the delegation drove off again away from Kufa and towards the Najaf shrine, now with a Mahdi Army escort in a black BMW. Pedestrians waved and gave thumbs-up signs as it went by.

The delegation drove on through a cordon of US Bradley armoured vehicles and Humvees, then into the deserted streets of Najaf.

It stopped in the vegetable market of Khan al-Khudra amid burnt-out stalls and onions and potatoes scattered on the ground, as militiamen began to emerge from the side streets.

Further along, a few residents sat in front of their houses in groups of three and four, looking as though they were anticipating the convoy's arrival.

Some of them raised their hands skyward, as if invoking the assistance of God.

"Are you the delegation?" asked one elderly man through the car window.

When the driver said “yes”, the old man said, "God be with you. We are tired. We ask God that you succeed."

Suddenly, a heavy burst of bullets rang out, and a group of militiamen ran past carrying one of their wounded.

A few minutes later, the delegation got out of the car and began walking through the narrow streets on foot.

The Mahdi Army escorts kept their rifles trained at the roofs of neighbouring houses. "There are many traitors here," said one.

The delegation arrived before the massive walls and blue-tiled gateway of the shrine.

Hundreds of armed men poured into the courtyard chanting "Long live al-Sadr, long live Muqtada!" as the delegation entered.

"Allawi and the council are infidels," they continued. "We are with you in martyrdom, Sayyid Muqtada," using the honorific bestowed on descendants of the Prophet Muhammad.

In a back chamber of the shrine, the delegation was received by Muqtada's representatives: political adviser Sheikh Ali Smaisim and spokesmen Qaid al-Khazali, Sheikh Ahmed al-Shaibani and Sheikh Hazem al-Araji.

Missing was the young cleric himself.

Smaisim told Hussein al-Sadr that they needed US forces to withdraw before Muqtada al-Sadr could reveal himself.

"Let us be frank, the location of the esteemed Muqtada is secret, and any mistake will endanger his life," Smaisim said.

With the atmosphere clearly tense, the two delegations went into a closed room.

Thirty minutes later, Hussein al-Sadr emerged with Muqtada's aunt Duha and two others, and announced they were going to pray.

Observers whispered to each other that they might be going to meet Muqtada somewhere.

As those presented waited for Muqtada al-Sadr's return, those assembled could hear clearly the sound of mortars being fired from the rear of the shrine.

"See, they are attacking the shrine," said one of the Sadrists, even though the fire was almost certainly outgoing.

"I wish I could get hold of any government official or Allawi,” said the Sadrist. “I would cut them to pieces."

Thirty minutes later, Hussein al-Sadr and his companions came back without saying a word.

They stood in front of the chamber's door, overlooking the shrine's marbled courtyard, to read their declaration.

"The security conditions prevented us from meeting Sayyid Muqtada. But what we understood from members of Sadr's office is positive," Hussein al-Sadr said. "Sayyid Muqtada did not refuse this urgent message."

As he spoke, crowds began to gather for the funeral of a slain fighter. "We are with you towards martyrdom, Sayyid Muqtada," they chanted.

"This is what happened, and I don't have anything else to add," said Hussein al-Sadr, wrapping up his speech as the crowds got nearer and voices got louder.

The delegation returned to Baghdad the same way as it arrived.

The following day, Allawi's defence minister declared that a final assault on the shrine was only hours away.

Shortly after this, a letter purportedly signed by Muqtada al-Sadr arrived at the National Conference - agreeing to its terms.

Although reports from Najaf are confused, Sadrist representatives have declared that they have handed over keys to the shrine to the marjaya, the city's senior religious establishment.

While some Mahdi Army fighters have been seen taking weapons out of the shrine, witnesses claim that his unarmed supporters remain in control of the complex.

Mahdi Army fighters continue to face off with US armoured vehicles, and the occasional explosion or round of gunfire can be heard.

Omar Anwar is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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