BAGHDAD, Iraq—The U.S. military is seeking talks with Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr directly and through the government of Iraq, according to a top American general.
A Sadr aide confirmed that U.S. officials had approached the anti-American cleric's supporters but said that Sadr would never begin a dialogue with what they describe as "occupation forces."
"He has a grass-roots movement that he's always going to have; we have to recognize that," Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the second-ranking American commander in Iraq, told McClatchy Newspapers in an interview this week. "We're trying to talk to him. We want to talk to him."
In a video conference from Baghdad on Thursday, Odierno also said the U.S. was reaching out to Sunni Muslims as well as Shiite armed factions such as Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
"We are talking about cease-fires, and maybe signing some things that say they won't conduct operations against the government of Iraq or against coalition forces," he said Thursday.
At the same time, however, U.S. and British forces have stepped up operations against the Mahdi Army in the sprawling Shiite slum of Sadr City in Baghdad and the southern port city of Basra.
Odierno told McClatchy that he wasn't sure whether Sadr's resurfacing in the Shiite holy city of Kufa last week was a good or bad thing for American forces in Iraq. While the cleric was away, his organization became more fractionalized, and part of the reason for his return, Odierno said, was "the consolidation of his powers." This could mean cleaning up rogue elements of the Mahdi Army, he said.
"I'm mixed; I'm not sure yet," Odierno said referring to the effect of Sadr's return on security. "I'll take a wait-and-see attitude."
Sadr, who was widely rumored to be hiding in neighboring Iran for months, appeared at Friday prayers in Kufa last week spouting anti-American rhetoric and calling on his followers to work with Sunnis against a U.S. "occupation."
Sadr largely inherited his constituency from the millions of impoverished Shiites in Iraq who are loyal to his father, the popular Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, whom Saddam Hussein's regime assassinated. While Muqtada al-Sadr's religious standing is shaky, his family name draws deep loyalty. Shiites credit his militia with protecting them from Sunni insurgents who target Shiite neighborhoods. But the Mahdi Army also is blamed for kidnapping and killing Sunni men.
An Iraqi judge has issued a warrant for the cleric's arrest in connection with the killing of Shiite leader Abdul Majid al-Khoei in April 2003.
Salah al-Obaidi, a senior Sadr aide, acknowledged that the U.S. has approached the cleric's supporters multiple times about talks with Sadr. He said the requests had been rebuffed.
"This will be a betrayal for the country," Obaidi said. "Any cooperation with the occupier is forbidden."
If the Iranian-backed Sadr, who's cast himself as a national resistance figure, began talking with the U.S. he'd risk losing support in the Iraqi street. During his absence he issued statements with fiery anti-American rhetoric while calling on followers not to attack. He called for a demonstration in Najaf in April against the American presence in Iraq, and legislators from his movement are circulating a bill in parliament to set a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal.
Sadr's supporters have "no problem" if members of the U.S. Congress were to meet with Sadrists in parliament, Obaidi said. "We respect the American people. We have no problem with them. We know not all of them accept the occupation."
The U.S. military has begun to draw distinctions between Sadr and what it calls "rogue" Mahdi Army members. It most often links the men whom it detains and kills to Iran through their weapon of choice: explosively formed projectiles, which are armor-piercing bombs that the American military claims come from Iran. Separating Sadr from the Mahdi Army commanders whom the American military is targeting could set the stage for U.S.-Sadr talks.
In his Pentagon video conference, Odierno said September could be too early for U.S. leaders to fully judge the success of the troop buildup, despite growing political pressure for a definitive assessment.
"Right now if you asked me, I would tell you I'll probably need a little bit more time to do a true assessment," Odierno said.
(Nancy A. Youssef in Washington and McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Jenan Hussein in Baghdad contributed to this report.)