Militia Leaders Charging Betrayal by Iraqi Premier

By DEXTER FILKINS

The New York Times

September 3, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Sept. 2 - Leaders of the insurgent Mahdi Army declared Thursday that they had been betrayed by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who has been trying to lure away the militia's supporters with millions of dollars in aid.

Yusef al-Nasiri, a senior leader of the group, said efforts to renew peace negotiations failed again on Thursday. Mr. Nasiri accused Dr. Allawi of deliberately stalling, as he tries to isolate the Mahdi Army and block its efforts to disarm and enter democratic politics.

Mr. Nasiri raised the prospect of renewed fighting with American forces, of the kind that has repeatedly engulfed Sadr City, the huge Baghdad slum that forms the main base of the Mahdi Army's support.

Negotiations to disarm the militia, which is led by the rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr, began last week, after the withdrawal of the Mahdi Army from the holy city of Najaf, but they broke down this week.

"The Iraqi government is not serious, they have ignored our efforts, and now the Americans are driving around Sadr City with their tanks, insulting people and acting aggressively," Mr. Nasiri said. "Nobody can guess what is going to happen next."

His frustration stems not just from the failure to revive the peace talks, but also from the aggressive efforts by Dr. Allawi to persuade some of the Mahdi Army's key backers to break with the rebel group and fall in behind the government.

On Tuesday, the same day that Dr. Allawi abruptly canceled a peace deal struck with the Mahdi Army, he met with a group of more than 300 prominent leaders from Sadr City and asked them to withdrawal their support from the militia. As an inducement, he offered some $300 million in reconstruction projects for the neighborhood.

The meeting ended inconclusively, according to tribal sheiks who were there, but the prospect of millions of dollars in aid set off excited discussions throughout the area. Sadr City, a vast and impoverished area of Baghdad, has as many as three million people.

The strategy employed by Dr. Allawi toward the Mahdi Army, which is Shiite, mirrors one he is using on the Sunni-driven insurgency north and west of Baghdad. In those areas, he is trying to coax members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party into the political mainstream, while he tries to isolate and crush hard-core Islamic fundamentalists, considering them irredeemable.

So far, the strategy in the Sunni areas has failed. Several former Baathist leaders who tried to reach accommodations with Dr. Allawi's government have been killed, and the Islamic fundamentalists, in places like Falluja and Ramadi, have tightened their grip.

With the Mahdi Army, Dr. Allawi is hoping that Sadr City's tribal leaders harbor little enthusiasm for Mr. Sadr and that they support him mostly because they have no alternative.

But Dr. Allawi is pursuing a risky course: he could incite the Mahdi Army or set off internecine strife among the Shiites in Baghdad.

Some of the tribal sheiks of Sadr City said they were concerned that Dr. Allawi might have abandoned his efforts to disarm the Mahdi Army and to bring it into democratic politics; it appears he wants to crush the group by force, they said.

"We want to follow the prime minister, but this is a mistake," said Sheik Shaker al-Saady, a tribal leader in Sadr City. "We were all happy to hear Moktada say he plans to enter politics and declare a cease-fire. It made the people happy."

"Now, if the prime minister wants to divide the tribal leaders from other residents, it could create two conflicts involving the militia: one with the Americans and another with the tribal leaders," Mr. Saady said. "The prime minister needs to make a political settlement."

Another tribal leader, Qarim al-Bikhaty, said Dr. Allawi could reach a political settlement that included the disarming of the Mahdi Army if he would agree to get the Americans out of Sadr City. That, he said, was the source of all the problems there.

"The people hate them," Mr. Bikhaty said of the American soldiers. "The Iraqi government must tell the Americans to stay out of the city."

In northern Iraq, militants bombed the oil pipeline to Turkey on Thursday, Reuters reported, halting exports.

In Falluja, American officers said they conducted an airstrike Wednesday night against what they believed was a safe house used by the network of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian militant suspected of carrying out several car bombings and kidnappings. The strike killed 17 people and wounded more than 13, according to Qasim Muhammad Abdul-Satar, a member a council of militants that controls the city.

Reuters quoted doctors in the city saying the dead included three children and one woman. There was no way to verify any of the claims.

The Americans said they staged the strike after they observed men killing a captive and burying a body. "The Zarqawi associates were observed removing a man from the trunk of a car, executing him, then burying the body," read a statement released by the American military.

The Americans said they had verified their intelligence on the strike from "multiple sources."