A US Withdrawal Deal with Sadr?

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Khaldoon Zubeir / Getty

Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr speaks to his supporters in the city of Basra, Iraq.

Shi'ite militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr stepped back into Iraq's political fray Friday with an offer that (if genuine) Washington would be hard-pressed to refuse: Set a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, and the Mahdi Army will begin to disband. "The main reason for the armed resistance is the American military presence," said Sadr emissary Salah al-Ubaidi, who spoke to reporters in Najaf Friday. "If the American military begins to withdrawal, there will be no need for these armed groups."

Sadr in the past has vowed to expand the humanitarian work of his movement but promised to maintain fighters from his Mahdi Army militia, which has fought against both the Iraqi government and U.S. forces. Al-Ubaidi's remarks effectively offered the strongest assurances yet that the Mahdi Army is willing to stand down entirely in Iraq, if American military forces back away.

Prospects for a formal pact between Baghdad and Washington on the long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq dimmed in July, when U.S. officials originally hoped to ink a deal. A number of issues complicated negotiations on the agreement, which is meant to replace the existing U.N. mandate giving legal cover for U.S. troops in Iraq. In Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have struggled over questions such as immunity for U.S. troops and contractors and whether American forces would be allowed to arrest and detain Iraqi nationals. U.S. and Iraqi officials have repeatedly said a deal was near. Other reports have cited Iraqi officials saying a deal could be reached in the coming days. But talks continue to flounder as impasse after impasse remained unresolved. Hopes for a breakthrough waned further in recent days as the Iraqi parliament, which must approve any long-term agreement, adjourned for a month-long recess, which will be followed by the month-long Islamic holiday of Ramadan.

The stall in the talks on a long-term pact came as U.S. leaders began suggesting they were ready to consider a significant drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq, where violence has dropped significantly since the beginning of the year. Sadr appears to have grown impatient with the deadlock, which prevents any movement on the central demand of his armed movement: U.S. withdrawal. The offer by Sadr, easily the nimblest player in the politics of violence practiced in Iraq, has effectively seated him at the negotiating table with the Americans despite his having broken with the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Whether Sadr's apparent pressure move will work remains uncertain. But U.S. military officials are likely to take it seriously. The U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, has kept up a dialogue with key figures from Sadr's ranks, and U.S. officials in Baghdad have repeatedly spoken hopefully about Sadr's plans to transform his movement into more of a humanitarian organization. Even while Maliki's government clashed in the streets of southern Iraq and Baghdad with Sadr's fighters earlier this year, American officials did not call for Sadr's capture or destruction but were openly holding out hope that the cleric would rejoin the political process. In other words, the Americans want to deal with Sadr, even if the Maliki government doesn't. And Sadr appears ready to deal with the Americans on the question of a drawdown of U.S. forces, even if the Maliki government can't or won't.

No deals are likely anytime soon, however. Much of Iraq's political establishment will be effectively checked out for roughly the next two months, meaning any big decisions by the Iraqi government are unlikely. In Washington, President Bush is eager to formalize a deal, which would not have to be approved by lawmakers unlike in Iraq. But any big decisions about troop levels will come after Petraeus makes his final recommendations on the U.S. military presence in September, shortly before he takes on a new job as head of the U.S. forces across the Middle East. That leaves American and Iraqi negotiators largely in limbo even as talks continue.

"There are ongoing negotiations," says Abas al-Bayati, an Iraqi parliamentarian and member of the defense and security committee. "We are still waiting for the final draft."

With Reporting by Mazin Ezzat and Kudhir Abbas