- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2004

BAGHDAD - Iraq’s interim government yesterday announced an agreement with nine political parties to disarm their militias and integrate their fighters into the national army or civilian life.

The plan would apply to 100,000 armed fighters, three-fourths of them Kurdish soldiers known as “peshmerga” and based mainly in the north.

The agreement was rejected by Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi’s Army of at least 10,000, has been battling U.S. troops in Baghdad and in predominantly Shi’ite cities since April.

The demobilization agreement was accepted by Kurdish leaders, as well as the Iraqi National Congress. Both control militias that fought alongside the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein’s army during last year’s invasion.

“The completion of these negotiations and issuance of this order is a watershed in establishing the rule of law,” said newly appointed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who leads the transitional government.

The agreement marks an attempt by the new government to enhance its authority throughout Iraq as it prepares to formally take power from the U.S.-led coalition at the end of the month.

Under the agreement, individual militia members could choose to lay down weapons and enter civilian life, with some benefits such as pensions accrued from their time served.

They also could choose to join the Iraqi army or another security service, such as the border patrol or civilian police.

The United States has attempted to negotiate similar agreements in the past.

But earlier efforts were rejected amid a growing distrust of the American presence and a worsening security situation.

Militias, including many smaller groups not covered by yesterday’s agreement, were seen by many frightened Iraqis as larger versions of a neighborhood-watch group.

Most groups covered by yesterday’s agreement belong to political parties that are represented in the new government.

“We want to disband the Badr Brigade and to enable its members to join the new Iraqi army and police forces and serve the new Iraq,” said Haitham al-Husseini, a top official in the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which controls the 15,000-member Badr Brigade, a Shi’ite group.

Jassim al-Hilfi, a member of the central committee of the Iraqi Communist Party, said his group was willing to disband its armed components because “we want to be part of the new Iraq.”

If successful, the latest agreement could swell the numbers of the Iraqi army, which has about 35,000 soldiers.

Under Saddam, Iraqi’s standing army was thought to number more than a half-million.

Yesterday’s agreement seeks to demobilize or recommission most soldiers by next year.

Soldiers who do not join the army or lay aside their weapons will be considered “illegal armed forces,” according to the transitional government.

The agreement does not cover the brigade organized by the U.S. Marines to take control of the Sunni Muslim city of Fallujah after the end of the three-week siege in April.

U.S. officials described the Fallujah brigade as “a special auxiliary unit” under the nominal control of the Marines, the Associated Press reported.

Also outside the agreement is the Mahdi’s Army, which is controlled by Sheik al-Sadr, the fiery young Shi’ite cleric, whose heavy-handed tactics and rhetoric have dismayed other Shi’ite leaders.

An aide to Sheik al-Sadr, Hassan Husseini, told Agence France-Presse that “the demobilization order does not concern us.”

He said, “The Mahdi’s Army is not a militia but a popular and radical movement,” adding that it is not interested in joining a coalition government.

Coalition officials have backed away from threats to dismantle Sheik al-Sadr’s army by force.

As recently as two weeks ago, the coalition said the militia did not have to disband as long as fighters stayed off the street.

In a separate development yesterday, a major general in the Badr Brigade, Shahir Faisal Shahir, was killed in Baghdad in a drive-by shooting.

Also, roadside bombs killed an American soldier south of Baghdad and wounded three civilians working for a British security firm in the northern city of Mosul, authorities said.

The attacks came after a weekend in which five civilian workers including two Americans were killed in two separate shootings.

Under the terms of yesterday’s agreement, those Kurdish forces who choose to join the Iraqi army or other security departments will be allowed to stay in the predominantly Kurdish north.

The Kurds are seeking to retain internal borders in a federal state, which would act as a buffer from the predominantly Arab central and south.

Participating militiamen are to hand in their weapons to the Ministry of Interior. The effort is expected to cost about $200 million and be completed by next year.

Other fighters covered by the agreement come from militias of Mr. Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord, the Shi’ite Dawa party, the Iraqi Islamic Party and Iraqi Hezbollah.

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