Iranians help reach Iraq cease-fire
By Charles Levinson
BAGHDAD — Iranian officials helped broker a cease-fire agreement Sunday between Iraq's government and radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, according to Iraqi lawmakers.
The deal could help defuse a wave of violence that had threatened recent security progress in Iraq. It also may signal the growing regional influence of Iran, a country the Bush administration accuses of providing support to terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere.
Al-Sadr ordered his forces off the streets of Iraq on Sunday. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hailed al-Sadr's action as "a step in the right direction." It was unclear whether the deal would completely end six days of clashes between U.S.-backed Iraqi forces and Shiite militias, including al-Sadr's.
Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni lawmaker who oversaw mediation in Baghdad, said representatives from al-Maliki's Dawa Party and another Shiite party traveled to Iran to finalize talks with al-Sadr.
Iran has close ties with both al-Sadr's movement and al-Maliki, who spent several years in exile there. Al-Nujaifi said the agreement was brokered by the commander of Iran's al-Quds Brigade, which is considered a terrorist organization by Washington.
Haidar al-Abadi, a Dawa legislator who is close to al-Maliki, confirmed that Iranians played a role in the negotiations. Sadiq al-Rikabi, a senior adviser to al-Maliki, said he could not confirm or deny Iranian involvement in the deal.
"The government proved once again that Iran is a central player in Iraq," said Iraqi political analyst and former intelligence officer Ibrahim Sumydai.
The nine-point deal was released by al-Sadr's office and read aloud from the minarets of Shiite mosques across southern Iraq. Al-Sadr called for the government to stop arresting his followers and release prisoners who have not been charged with a crime.
Hours later, rockets continued to shake Baghdad. According to the U.S. military, elements of al-Sadr's militia no longer answer to him.
Al-Rikabi vowed Iraqi forces will continue a broad offensive against "criminal elements" in the southern city of Basra and elsewhere.
Vali Nasr, an Iraq expert at the Council of Foreign Relations, said al-Sadr had emerged stronger from the battle, which killed more than 300 people. "He let the Americans and the Iraqis know that taking him down is going to be difficult."
Al-Sadr's militia stood strong, forcing the government to extend a deadline for them to disarm.
"Everything we heard indicates the Sadrists had control of more ground in Basra at the end of the fighting than they did at the beginning," said al-Nujaifi, the Sunni mediator. "The government realized things were not going in the right direction."