Different strategies emerge on how to deal with al-Sadr

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) — Differences have emerged between the U.S. and Iraq on how to deal with Shiite militant Muqtada al-Sadr, with the Americans appearing more willing than the Shiite-led government to concede a legitimate political role to the anti-U.S. cleric.

The gap appeared after fighting broke out last month between Iraqi forces and al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia in Basra. Clashes quickly spread to Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi troops are still confronting Shiite militiamen in the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City.

Throughout the fighting, U.S. commanders have avoided publicly identifying al-Sadr or his Mahdi Army as their adversary, instead referring to the Shiite militants as “special groups” or simply “criminals.”

Moreover, top American officials have left the door open for al-Sadr, who is believed to be in Iran, to maintain a significant role in Iraqi politics.

Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates described al-Sadr as “a significant political figure,” adding that the Americans wanted to see him “work within the political process.”

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, went even further, telling reporters that al-Sadr’s political movement was a major force that should be “to varying degrees, accommodated.”

Those comments were measured, and the Americans were clear that al-Sadr’s participation in politics should be conditional on abandoning militia violence.

Still, the comments worried close aides of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who feared the U.S. remarks might encourage al-Sadr to resist Iraqi government demands to disband his militia. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive.

While the Americans were speaking of a possible role for al-Sadr, al-Maliki was lining up political support among Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish parties for a major showdown with the cleric — aimed at eliminating the Sadrists as a political force in the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq.

Al-Maliki, himself a Shiite, said publicly this month that al-Sadr must disband the Mahdi Army or get out of politics.

The prime minister is asking parliament to approve legislation that would bar any party from fielding candidates in provincial elections this fall if it maintains a militia.

Al-Maliki’s measure was clearly aimed at al-Sadr, even though most Iraqi parties maintain ties to armed groups. Many of these militias have been absorbed into the army or police while still keeping links to their political sponsors.

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