- The Washington Times - Monday, December 21, 2009

BAGHDAD | The U.S. is reaching out to followers of a key Shi’ite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia once battled U.S. troops and who remains a powerful leader, particularly among Iraq’s urban poor.

A top Sadrist political leader in Baghdad, Qusay al-Suhail, told The Washington Times that he and his colleagues have been approached five times in the last five months by emissaries seeking to arrange meetings with senior U.S. military and civilian officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

“Yes, the Americans tried to talk to me and other Sadrists several times,” Mr. al-Suhail said. “They try to talk to us as individuals, but we made it clear that there is no use to talking to us when you are an occupying power.”

Two U.S. officials familiar with the outreach efforts confirmed that the U.S. Embassy is trying to reach an understanding with the Sadrists, who represent one of the largest factions among Iraq’s Shi’ite majority and have legions of followers in a Baghdad slum known as Sadr City.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic, said that in return for a political understanding, they are willing to release, in coordination with the Iraqi government, thousands of Sadrist prisoners.

The outreach represents a major turnaround in U.S. policy toward Mr. al-Sadr, who is the descendant of one of the Shi’ite sect’s most famous clerical families.

In 2004, L. Paul Bremer III, then in charge of the U.S. occupation authority, closed down the Sadrist newspaper and ordered the arrest of Mr. al-Sadr for fomenting opposition to U.S. forces. The action led to widespread clashes between the U.S. and the Sadrists, culminating in a three-week war in the Iraqi theological center of Najaf, where Mr. al-Sadr and his supporters had occupied the holy shrine of the Imam Ali.

In 2008, Mr. al-Sadr declared that he had disbanded his Mahdi Army militia and would concentrate on elevating his weak religious credentials through study in the Iranian theological center of Qom. Mr. al-Suhail said Mr. al-Sadr now divides his time between Qom and Najaf.

The U.S. outreach effort is intended to help stabilize Iraq as the U.S. draws down its forces and to prevent the Sadr movement from turning into a replica of Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese group, which has veto power over government actions and maintains a powerful militia separate from the Lebanese national army.

One U.S. military official familiar with the effort said the United States has an interest in making sure the Sadrist faction does not replicate Hezbollah by maintaining both a political party and a militia simultaneously. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

The two U.S. officials said the outreach is being led by Gary Grappo, an ambassadorial-level official who works out of the U.S. Embassy, and Maj. Gen. Joseph Reynes Jr., who heads the Force Strategic Engagement Cell. This unit played a key role in 2007 and 2008 in laying the groundwork for persuading Sunni Muslim extremists to turn against al Qaeda.

The cell also had meetings in 2007 with Sadrist deputies, according to both Fox News and the Los Angeles Times. Those meetings were aimed in part at cleaving off Sadr followers from even more violent factions, known as special groups, reportedly backed by Iran.

Philip Frayne, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, would not comment on the effort apart from saying that there had been no meetings to date between Mr. Grappo and Sadrist political leaders.

“The embassy is always interested in meeting individual members of any group that has renounced violence and expressed a willingness to participate in the political system,” Mr. Frayne said.

Mr. al-Suhail said there are approximately 2,000 followers of Mr. al-Sadr in U.S. custody and another 2,000 followers in Iraqi custody. He said most of those detained were never prosecuted and have been held under a law that allowed Iraqis anonymously to make accusations against individuals - a law that was repealed over the summer.

“We have a committee formed in the movement seeking their release, specifically with the Iraqi government only. We speak only to the Iraqi government,” he said. He added that the release of the prisoners is one of the top priorities for his movement.

Mr. al-Suhail said that Mr. al-Sadr does not provide day-to-day political guidance to his followers and instead lays out general guidelines in public statements. One example is Mr. al-Sadr’s admonition in 2008 to begin to decommission the Mahdi Army. The Sadrist militia, in addition to fighting the Americans in 2004, is accused of having conducted ethnic cleansing in some Baghdad neighborhoods in 2005 and 2006.

Followers of Mr. al-Sadr still maintain a militia known as the Al-Yawom al-Mawood, or the Promised Day Brigade.

“Sayeed Muqtada al-Sadr has transformed the Mahdi Army to a cultural institution,” Mr. al-Suhail said. “Their duty is to deepen their cultural beliefs and widen their religious understandings. He put the military resistance exclusively in the hand of the battalion of the Al-Yawom al-Mawood. It’s open, there is no limit or number for it; anyone who has the discipline to apply the rules can get in. But he has to abide by the orders of Sayeed Muqtada.”

“The Sadrists are clearly still an important constituency in Iraq,” said Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, research director at the Institute for the Study of War. “And they have been a driver of instability in the past, though they have certainly moderated their approach and have emphasized the importance of the political and social aspects of the movement.”

“They still do retain a militia wing known as the Promised Day Brigade, which is a security concern and something I am sure U.S. civilian and military leaders in Baghdad are concerned about as they consider withdrawal,” she added.

Humam Hamoudi, a political leader of another Shi’ite party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, said: “I think there will be a conversation between the Sadrists and the United States once the United States starts to behave like a normal country, like France, and this will be after the U.S. withdraws all its forces.”

Mr. Hamoudi added, “I think the Americans have changed and the Sadrists have also changed because the situation in Iraq has changed.”

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