Local Foes Commit to Peace in Baghdad
Friday, October 19, 2007
BAGHDAD, Oct. 18 -- Local Sunni and Shiite leaders from southwestern Baghdad signed an agreement Thursday intended to halt sectarian violence and attacks on American and Iraqi troops, with the condition that security forces limit their raids and offensive operations.
The 12-point "reconciliation document between Muslims" was the result of two months of negotiations between U.S. soldiers and power brokers in an area of the capital that has become an important base for Shiite militiamen but has also experienced attacks by Sunni insurgents.
The agreement, signed in a conference room in the U.S.-protected Baghdad International Airport compound, is an example of the U.S. military's wide-ranging effort to encourage local leaders to make such peaceful commitments in the absence of momentum toward national reconciliation by Iraqi politicians.
"The people in this room are leading the process for all of Baghdad," said Lt. Col. Patrick Frank, commander of the 1st Infantry Division's 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry Regiment, which operates in southwestern Baghdad. "You are the hope for the entire city."
U.S. military officials said that while they did not expect a cessation of violence in such neighborhoods as al-Jihad and al-Furat, the agreement represented a statement of good faith by rival factions and could contribute to improved security in coming months. Frank described the tribal leaders and neighborhood officials as highly influential in the area, a swath of southern Baghdad that is home to 125,000 people.
Those involved in the reconciliation agreement are Sunni tribal leaders; members of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a leading Sunni political party; and local government officials, many of whom have ties to the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
It remains unclear exactly how much power the participants have to rein in either sectarian violence or the lucrative criminal enterprises run by militiamen. Some neighborhoods near those covered by the pact, particularly al-Amil and Bayaa, have witnessed increases in roadside bombings this month and remain strongholds for the Mahdi Army. Thousands of Sunni families have been driven from their homes there.
Those districts are "more complicated," said Sabeeh Radi al-Kaabi, president of the district advisory council in the area, noting recent clashes between Sunni tribesmen and the Mahdi Army. "But I have seen the desire of Sunnis and Shiites to end the fighting," he added.
The reconciliation meeting was attended by two senior Iraqi government officials -- Safa Hussein, deputy national security adviser, and Bassima al-Jaidri, an adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- who are members of a government committee to implement national reconciliation. Some participants were particularly encouraged by Jaidri's approval of the agreement, given her reputation among some U.S. and Iraqi officials as an ardent Shiite partisan.
"I believe that reconciliation is the only solution to save Iraq from violence and terrorism," Jaidri said in an interview after the meeting. "Where it has happened in other areas, we see the curve of violence going down. Reconciliation is the only solution, not military operations."
The most contentious issue at Thursday's meeting was a stipulation that the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces would retain the ability to conduct "limited raids on specific targets" in the area. Some Iraqi local leaders wanted all raids and offensive military operations halted, but the American soldiers refused. The compromise language said that the security forces could move against "specific targets that break the law and threaten peace" and that murderers would still be subject to prosecution in Iraqi courts.
Frank, the U.S. commander in the area, said his soldiers had already limited themselves to targeted raids, so the agreement would not significantly change their day-to-day behavior.
Hours after the agreement was signed, mortar shells or rockets landed near two U.S. military bases in southwestern Baghdad.
The reconciliation agreement also calls for the "cessation of firing on main streets, markets, and parks," demands that both Sunnis and Shiites refrain from stealing property from displaced families, and says that authorities will release all innocent people held in American and Iraqi prisons.
"These are members of Sunni and Shiite tribes who were involved in fighting each other, but they agreed to look to the future and forget the past," said Hussein, the deputy national security adviser. "I think it is the beginning of a success story."
Special correspondent Zaid Sabah contributed to this report.