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If You Want Peace in Iraq, Stop Trying to Kill Muqtada al-Sadr and Negotiate With Him

In D.C., there's a belief that Iraqis will tolerate the United States if they can just get the occupation right. But it's the occupation itself that inflames Iraqis' passions.
 
 
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News reports indicate that the U. S. is negotiating with the Shiite nationalist Muqtada Al-Sadr, leader of the powerful Mahdi Army. Washington should accommodate Al-Sadr's demands to ensure the safe and orderly withdrawal or re-deployment of our forces as well as to enhance the possibility of a more peaceful outcome for Iraq.

Negotiating with Al-Sadr is distasteful to some Americans. American blood has been spilled by those who have followed him. But this is war, and the United States has already crossed this barrier by arming and collaborating with Sunnis in the Al-Anbar region who have fought and killed far more Americans than al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. Moreover, the British just negotiated the withdrawal of their troops from Basra with Sadr's forces in the south, notwithstanding the recent hollow claim made by their defense and foreign secretaries in a recent opinion piece.

In the simplest possible terms, the United States should negotiate with Sadr because he is arguably the most powerful politician in the country today. At present, Muqtada al-Sadr has millions of Shiite followers, and among his fiercest supporters are the poor living under squalid conditions in al-Sadr city, named after his father. He controls six cabinet members and 30 lawmakers. More importantly, Al-Sadr has the Mahdi Army beside him -- even if he does not control all of it. If elections were held today, he could double his support in the parliament. Yet unless there is meaningful acceptance of some of Sadr's demands, this voting bloc in parliament will likely further paralyze the Iraqi government.

Al-Sadr has shown remarkable flexibility and acumen since our invasion, increasing his support dramatically during our occupation. Many of his followers are willing to die for him. His three-part approach of participating in democracy, fighting the government, and building a grass roots, service-oriented organization has endeared him to most Iraqis.

Al-Sadr became popular because he has espoused policies and services that are admired by most Iraqis. He is fiercely nationalistic. His support includes many Shiites who were among the poorest and most oppressed during Saddam's regime. His Army and his followers provide safety to the areas they control. He facilitates the daily services of healthcare, education, water and electricity, often where the Iraqi government and occupation forces have failed. He advocates a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. He wants Iraqi oil to remain under the control of the central government. He strongly condemns the killing of Iraqis whether Sunnis (no matter what happened in the past) or Christians. Finally, like most Iraqis, he wants the country to stay unified. Sadr has even ordered his Mahdi Army to stand down for six months to help coalition forces have a clear fight against Al Qaeda.

In order to prevent the Iranians from setting up a puppet regime in Baghdad or at least in southern Iraq, we need to recognize that the stability in Iraq requires a nationalist, and not a U.S. puppet, government. As the most active Shiite spokesman, Sadr is the key to represent the unique interests of Iraq's Shiites, who do not want to be dominated by the Shiites of Iran. This Iraqi nationalist government, in the long run, would create a greater likelihood of cooperation with the United States for the reconstruction of Iraq. But that cooperation hinges on our respect for Iraqi sovereignty, maintaining the federal ownership of their oil and keeping Iraq intact. More importantly, the nationalist government could eliminate the insurgent group known as Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Nations react differently to the presence of foreign forces on their soil. The presence of U.S. forces is accepted by the citizens of Kuwait, Qatar and, to some degree, by the Kurds in Northern Iraq. However, in the rest of Iraq, in Saudi Arabia, and in much of the Middle East, the presence of U.S. forces is not tolerated.

We think we can win the hearts and mind of Iraqis if we do a good job on their security, health, education and economy. We assumed that by ensuring these services we would be loved -- or at least tolerated. We have not been able to accomplish this because we have ignored the most important element that angers the Iraqis -- the presence of nearly 300,000 U.S. troops and contractors on Iraqi soil, trying vainly to enforce the laws of a government that was not designed to represent the nationalistic longings of its people.

History is full of examples that occupation breeds resentment leading to the creation of extreme elements. Once there is peace and foreign troops are out, the popularity of the extremists wanes while the popularity of moderates increases. If our policy towards extremists includes negotiation, it may well result in strengthening the moderates within the same movement as well as enhancing other moderate movements.

We need to think of policies that in the long run will serve our national interests while also serving the interests of humanity. This will happen when our policies are moral and perceived as such by others. It is time to accommodate the demands of some with groups that have opposed us and begin to moderate their policies by dialogue and engagement for the good of Iraqis as well as Americans.

Adil E. Shamoo, born and raised in Baghdad, is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus .

 
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