* Will meet Iranian foreign ministry delegation
* Sadegi says he is here to assess the situation given Iran’s concerns over troubles in Iraq
NAJAF Firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr said on Thursday he was prepared to meet an Iranian delegation in Najaf as he embraced mediation efforts to avert a showdown with US troops massed outside the holy city.
Sadr, wanted for the murder of a rival cleric last year, will meet Hossein Sadeghi, heading a five-member delegation from the foreign ministry, if they come to Najaf, Sadr aide Sayyed Hossam al-Musawi told AFP.
Another aide in nearby Kufa, Sheikh Fuad al-Torsi, said Sadr “welcomes the Iranian initiative because it is coming from an Islamic country.” But the contents of any Iranian proposal remained unknown to the Sadr camp and the delegation was tight-lipped about the purpose of its visit.
Sadeghi, who arrived in Baghdad on Wednesday afternoon, said there was “no mediation” and that he was here “to assess the situation given Iran’s concerns over the recent troubles in Iraq.” Sadeghi, the ministry’s Gulf director, met on Wednesday with Massoud Barzani, the current chairman of Iraq’s US-appointed Governing Council, the Al-Taakhi daily reported.
A senior US official said the delegation was in Iraq at the request of the British government.
Iran has been fiercely critical of the US-led occupation of its neighbour but has kept its distance from Sadr, a young firebrand who does not enjoy broad-based appeal among Iraq’s Shiite majority.
Tehran is closer to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a mainstream Shiite religious party headed by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who sits on the Governing Council.
So far the main mediation efforts have been led by the Shiite Dawa Party, another party represented on the council, and Iraqi religious leaders under the sponsorship of the Marjaiya, the highest Shiite authority.
Sadr’s spokesman in Baghdad said Thursday “negotiations with mediators were still ongoing but there were no concrete results yet.” Hazem al-Araji told AFP that although Sadr had said on Wednesday that he would give mediation a chance, it did not mean that he would abandon his main demands: the release of Sadr supporters held by the coalition and guarantees that US troops would not enter the holy cities of Karbala, Najaf and Kufa.
“Sayyed Moqtada is prepared to do whatever the Marjaiya tells him to do as long as it is in the interest of Iraq and the Iraqi people,” said Araji, who was himself briefly detained by US troops on Tuesday.
Another aide said Wednesday that the cleric was willing to disarm his Mehdi Army and appear before a court under a future “legitimate and democratic” Iraqi government.
But Araji sought to downplay those offers, raising doubts over the cleric’s true position amid a barrage of statements and counter-statements from the Sadr camp.
What is clear is that Sadr has significantly toned down his rhetoric over the past week as US troops massed near Najaf with the stated mission of killing or capturing him.
Only last Friday Sadr was calling on all Iraqis to join his uprising to drive the US-led coalition out, warning of a mass Shiite uprising.
The coalition insists that there are no negotiations with Sadr, wanted for the alleged murder of a rival cleric last year, but it has welcomed diplomatic efforts to avert further bloodshed.
It also insists that there is no place for militias like the Mehdi Army as it prepares to hand power over to an interim government on June 30.
On the ground in Najaf, all was quiet Thursday as Iraqi police were seen around the city’s main streets, while Sadr’s black-clad fighters milled around the shrine of Imam Ali, the city’s holiest site.
Sadr unleashed his militia at the beginning of April, seizing control of towns in central and southern Iraq after one of his associates was arrested one of his newspapers was shut down for allegedly inciting anti-US violence. AFP