- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

BAGHDAD — Coalition officials are looking favorably on a deal proposed by Shi’ite tribal leaders that would see Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr face trial, but allow the radical cleric to save face by surrendering to tribal authorities instead of American forces.

Many see it as a last chance for a peaceful end to the standoff between U.S. forces and the cleric, who has been holed up in the holy city of Najaf since sending his Mahdi’s Army militia into battle against the coalition in early April.

The deal, devised without American input, requires Sheik al-Sadr to stand trial in the killing of a rival cleric.

In exchange, the tribal authorities will negotiate their demands with both Sheik al-Sadr and American forces, including withdrawal from Najaf by both sides.

“It’s an attempt to solve the legal question, and not just the security question,” said Sheik Fatih Kashif al-Ghitta, a top adviser to Iraqi Governing Council member Salama al-Khafaji. “And to solve it in a way that doesn’t humiliate Muqtada, that doesn’t humiliate the Iraqi people, and that doesn’t humiliate the Americans.”

Several Iraqi groups are trying to resolve the standoff in Najaf. But a senior official with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) said the tribal proposal was the most viable prospect for ending the confrontation.

“The Iraqi tribes do have the capability to resolve this situation,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “This has the best chance of succeeding.”

The group has not yet formally approached the coalition, but the tribal leaders say their proposal has the blessing of revered Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, as well as that of exiled Iraqi Ayatollah Kazim al-Ha’eri.

A student of Baqir al-Sadr, Muqtada al-Sadr’s father, Ayatollah al-Ha’eri lives in Iran and is widely believed to be Sheik al-Sadr’s spiritual mentor.

A month ago, a delegation traveled to Najaf to make its proposal to Sheik al-Sadr. It consisted of about 40 people, including 25 Iraqi tribal leaders or sheiks, five lawyers, five academics and Dr. al-Khafaji, one of two Shi’ite women on the Governing Council.

Dr. al-Khafaji, a professor of dentistry before joining the council, traveled to Najaf as a private citizen, not as a representative of the U.S.-appointed body, which many Iraqis view as illegitimate.

Meeting with Sheik al-Sadr’s deputies in his offices in Najaf, the group offered to negotiate with the American authorities on his behalf if he would agree to certain conditions.

Sheik al-Sadr was told he would not be able to change any of the details of the deal, but that the group would not compromise on the key tenets that protect him. The radical cleric was given until Saturday to decide.

Under the terms of the deal, coalition forces would withdraw from Najaf as tribal militias move in and take Sheik al-Sadr into custody and his Mahdi’s Army is transformed into a political organization. The cleric would have the right to approve the names of the judges who will decide his case, but must pledge to abide by their decision.

The plan was originally devised by Dr. al-Khafaji’s office and Sheik Hussein Ali al-Shaalan, head of the Baghdad-based Iraqi National Council of Tribes. The federation of 25 tribes headed by Sheik al-Shaalan includes all the major tribes in southern Iraq.

Together, the 25 tribes have about 2 million members.

“Muqtada realizes the power of the tribes,” said the senior coalition official. “If the tribes have united against him, then he should realize that it’s not just the coalition that’s against him.”

Coalition officials don’t know the exact details of the plan, but are aware of its broad outlines. They say two main demands are not negotiable — that Sheik al-Sadr must stand trial and be judged by Iraqis, and that Mahdi’s Army must disarm.

The group says it will not approach the Americans unless Sheik al-Sadr agrees to its conditions. “We’re not acting as intermediaries,” Sheik al-Ghitta said.

“We want him to agree. If he agrees, then we will go to the Americans, not with a proposal, but with a demand from the Iraqi people.”

If Sheik al-Sadr agrees to the conditions of the proposal, said Dr. al-Khafaji, placing her hand on her heart, then “we will have his problem as ours.”

If Sheik al-Sadr does not respond favorably by Saturday, Sheik al-Ghitta said, “he will be free, and we will be free” — meaning that he would lose the protection of the tribes.

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