The Najaf peace deal

Daily: The Nation
Date: 10.09.04

Finally, on August 26, 2004 the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani, the most revered Iraqi Shia
cleric, brokered one-to-one peace deal with a junior Iraqi Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr to
resolve the three weeks long Najaf crisis — despite their mutual rivalry. The Iraqi interim
government quickly accepted the deal to make it a tripartite agreement.

The journey which Muqtada al-Sadr had started from al-Sadr city (in the slums of Baghdad)
passed through Kufa and ended in Najaf. The journey was a peaceful defiance to an open
rebellion and then a graceful dissipation.

Instead of al-Sadr City and Kufa, Muqtada selected Najaf to compel the world listen to his
accumulated grievances. First, closing of his weekly newspaper (al-Hawza), which was
raising a voice of dissent. Secondly, capture of al-Yacoubi, his aide, against allegation of
murder of Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei, a rival Shia cleric. Thirdly, the warrant of his
arrest, that implicated him in the slain charges. Fourthly, the restoration of punishment of
hanging for the outlaws by the Iraqi interim government — that implied both Muqtada and
his followers.

In response, in Najaf, on August 12, 2004 Muqtada al-Sadr forwarded his four major
demands. First, the Coalition should liberate Iraq or at least Najaf, the Shiite holy city.
Second, the Iraqi Transitional Government should be replaced with a Shia theocracy. Third,
his associates/followers should be set free. Fourth, pardon should be awarded to his
militiamen.

According to the peace deal, the Coalition forces have to leave both Najaf and Kufa, the
holy cities, and hand over the charge of maintaining law and order of both the cities to the
Iraqi police. It shows that Muqtada has finally compromised the presence of the Coalition
forces in Iraq. The compromise is contrary to his July 18, 2003 position when he called for
liberation of Iraq from the Coalition forces (though through peaceful means). Hence, this
aspect of the deal is a gain for the Coalition/Iraqi forces.

However, on this aspect, the deal has also awarded him a success on his August 12, 2004
position that the Coalition forces are bound to leave Najaf, besides Kufa. Secondly, he has
also restored sanctity of the holy cities by handing them over to Grand Ayatollah and
ensuring the presence of the Iraqi police force subsequently.

According to the peace deal, there is a need of a census to be taken to prepare for election
— to make the election legitimate — which is expected in Iraq by January 2005. This shows
how firm Muqtada is on his one of the major four August 12, 2004 demands: the Iraqi
transitional government should be replaced with a Shia theocracy. As Grand Ayatollah al-
Sistani is in favour of a secular form of government in Iraq, which is in contrast to Muqtada’s
demand, the Iraqi people (preferably downtrodden Shias) are going to be consulted to
ensure an appropriate representation of all the sections of society. Similarly, as Muqtada is
a leader of the Shia poor masses, in the deal, he tried to ensure the monetary
compensation of the people who got harmed during the crisis.

The aforementioned steps invite his popularity in the masses and are poised to make him
admired as an emerging religio-political leader, if he joins the political process in future.
However, the esteem of Muqtada and his Mehdi militia is still not a match with the
overwhelming support of the Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and his Badr militia which enjoys a
stronghold in Najaf. Now, for Muqtada and his militia the major stronghold left is al-Sadr City
— a loss for Muqtada.

According to the peace deal, Muqtada and his Mehdi militia will be set free. It shows that his
remaining August 12, 2004 demands also have been met. The deal does not enjoin upon
Muqtada to disband his Mehdi militia. In short, both Muqtada and his Mehdi militia have got
what they were looking for: amnesty. This part sways the deal more in favour of Muqtada
and his followers.

The peace deal is a sigh of relief for the Coalition/Iraqi forces as well. First, the timing of the
crisis was worrisome as the National Council was to formulate an interim constitution for the
January 2005 election. Second, the nature of Muqtada’s stance was quite sensitive as had
the Imam Ali mosque or shrine been desecrated, the Shia-Coalition alliance was going to an
end leaving the Coalition nowhere. Thirdly, the consequences of mishandling of the crisis
was bound to cause an economic cost as the Southern oil pipe lines were being sabotaged
causing half supply of its share of oil in the international market. Fourthly, these factors,
individually or collectively, could cast dark shadows on the forthcoming November election
in the US.

Broadly speaking, the crisis was a result of mistreatment of the Muqtada’s issue right from
the beginning and an inclination to solve the problem through force. In this regard, the
attitude of Paul Bremer and Iyad Allawi remained identical and open to question. It was the
biggest operation of the US led forces in Iraq since the fall of Saddam in April 2003. The
major trump card in the hands of the coalition was the Grand Ayatollah who did his part of
job well. The whole episode was a show of power from both sides. The crisis also reflected
a true power of a religious personality whether it was in shape of Muqtada or the Grand
Ayatollah in the Iraq’s context of influence.

In the end, the fate of the four is still unpredictable: al-Hawza, al-Yacoubi, the Mehdi militia,
and the compromise of Muqtada al-Sadr — as per the given trends and the preemptive
precautions, which the Coalition/Iraqi interim administration is now expected to observe.
However, one thing is sure that this is not an end of the drama and in any future
confrontation, if it happens, the Grand Ayatollah may not be able to play a role of a
mediator and a cushion.

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