The US military in Iraq is aiming for a political outcome in its battle with the forces of rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, as it seeks to win six weeks of calm before it hands over sovereignty on June 30, according to a US commander in Baghdad.
General Martin Dempsey, commanding general of the 1st armoured division, said on Tuesday that he had begun negotiations with “stakeholders” including members of Mr Sadr’s militia to form two battalions of 1,840 troops in Najaf, which he said Mr Sadr’s “lieutenants” could help to recruit.
The offer resembles last week’s deal in the Sunni town of Falluja, in which US troops lifted their three-week siege, withdrew to the town’s periphery and handed security to a “Falluja brigade”, in part comprising insurgents.
The initiative comes after a month of heavy fighting around Najaf and Karbala and marks a significant reversal of the previous US declared objective “to kill or capture” Mr Sadr, who has been indicted for murder.
Increasingly, the US has been seeking local solutions to conflicts in Iraq, though Iraqi politicians have criticised US commanders in Falluja for selling out to insurgents.
“We have approached the stakeholders and asked them to give us numbers,” said Gen Dempsey, whose forces replaced Spanish and Latin American troops after Mr Sadr’s militia swept to control towns in southern Iraq last month.
“We are going to try this model any place that I control right now and I think probably you are going to see some similar approach across the country,” Gen Dempsey said.
He said the 600 to 800 of Mr Sadr’s dedicated fighters holed up in the holy city of Kufa could become part of the forces, as long as they were not wanted for crimes.
Mr Sadr would not be included in the battalions, he said, adding that five more battalions would be created to attract Mr Sadr’s militiamen in five other cities.
In return, Gen Dempsey said US forces could withdraw outside the city to help train the force. He said negotiations had been going on for two weeks.
The proposal comes as Adnan al-Zurufi, the new US-appointed Najaf governor, offered to defer murder charges against Mr Sadr if the preacher disbanded his militia. Mr Sadr demanded that US authorities ask him directly for talks.
Governor al-Zurufi told Associated Press news agency he would ask the US-led administration to delay legal proceedings against Mr Sadr until the Americans had transferred power to a new Iraqi administration. Gen Dempsey appeared to sidestep the issue. “It’s not for me to decide how this indictment is handled.”
Unlike the Falluja force, Gen Dempsey said seven battalions in the Shia south would be integrated into the Iraqi army under Ali Allawi, the defence minister, and would not be a separate militia. He said other militias operating in Najaf would also be invited to join. This would probably include the military wing of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.