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Iraq's Sadr Overhauls His Tactics

"The Americans are trying to picture the Mahdi Army as being a tool of Iran," said Karim Abu Ali, a Sadr spokesman in Baghdad. "It is baseless."

Altering such perceptions was part of Sadr's reason for cooperating with the current Baghdad security plan, Obaidi said. Violence now is largely being perpetrated by Sunni insurgents deploying car bombs and suicide attacks.

"We have been accused that we're not cooperating to bring security," Obaidi said. "Now, we've shown that we are not the source of the problems."

Sadr's cooperation with the plan, his aides said, is based partly on political battles over Iraq policy in Washington -- a sign, he believes, that the occupation is in its final stages. His aides say he is open to meeting U.S. politicians who are not part of the Bush administration, particularly those calling for a U.S. withdrawal.

"We are not anti-American. We think the Americans have an important role in rebuilding Iraq, but as companies, not as an army," Obaidi said. "We can open a new channel with the Democrats, even some of the Republicans."

Vow to Weaken Al-Qaeda

Shaibani, Sadr's spokesman in Najaf during the confrontation with U.S. troops in 2004, spent more than two years inside U.S. detention centers. Sidelined from an increasingly sectarian war, he befriended Sunni insurgents instead of killing them, earning a credibility few in Sadr's movement can claim today.

Sadr is now dispatching Shaibani to speak with Sunni religious leaders in Syria, Egypt and across the Persian Gulf to seek their help in approaching Sunnis inside Iraq.

Sadr senses an opportunity in recent moves by Sunni insurgent groups to break away from militants influenced by al-Qaeda, and in the threats by the largest Sunni political bloc to leave the government, which opens the possibility for a new cross-sectarian political alliance, his aides said.

If the sectarian war can be stopped, if the Mahdi Army and Sunni insurgent groups can join hands and break al-Qaeda in Iraq, there will be less reason for U.S. forces to stay, said Shaibani, wearing a black dishdasha, a traditional loose-fitting tunic, and clutching a Nokia cellphone during an interview in late April. "The American argument is we can't have a timetable because of al-Qaeda," he said. "So we're going to weaken al-Qaeda for you."

Sadr's political followers have had informal talks with Sunni politicians and insurgent groups in the past month. "We think there is some possibility to have a closer relationship," said Hussein al-Falluji, a legislator in the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc.

Abu Aja Naemi, a commander in the 1920 Revolution Brigades, said Sadr's representatives have had informal discussions with his group.

The Sadrists, like most Sunnis, are against the idea of creating autonomous regions. They share concerns over the fate of the contested oil-rich city of Kirkuk, division of oil revenue and the need for Iraq's constitution to be amended.


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