February 18, 2008


The enigma of Muqtada al-Sadr: As a truce nears its end, the spotlight on a key Shia cleric intensifies (The Economist, 2/14/08)

AFTER hours of negotiations in the smoke-filled reception room of a sheikh's villa in the western Baghdad district of Hay al-Amil, community leaders—among them shopkeepers, lawyers, teachers and a police captain—thought they had finally clinched a deal. Displaced Sunni families in the district could return to their homes across the street in a mainly Shia housing estate. And Shia families who had been kicked out of their homes on the mainly Sunni side could go back to their old properties too. Both sides would be honour-bound to guarantee the safety of those who returned.

But as they began to sip celebratory tea, Ali Hamdoun, the robed sheikh on whose gold-tasselled couches they sat, held up his hand for quiet. “And what does our brother from the Jaish al-Mahdi [the Mahdi Army] have to say?” he asked of a darkly clad man in the corner.

“Arrest these people, and you have our blessing and that of Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr,” replied the man, who had been silent. He then handed the sheikh a piece of paper with the names of three local Sunnis who had allegedly been firing at a checkpoint of the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to Mr Sadr, a Shia cleric who has probably the largest following of any leader in Iraq. Mr Hamdoun squinted at the list, then at the Sunni Arab contingent sitting along one side of the room. They nodded.

Neighbourhood reconciliation and security meetings like this are happening across Baghdad, said Mr Hamdoun, as he relaxed afterwards, drawing on another cigarette.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 18, 2008 8:37 AM
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