London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, spokesman for the Multi-National forces in Iraq, has affirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat that Multi-National forces are holding talks with commanders of Muqtada al-Sadr’s Al-Mahdi Army with the “Iraqi Government’s blessing.”
Caldwell also stated that talks are not limited to the commanders of the Al-Mahdi Army, but also include several Iraqi armed groups, as part of the implementation of the political part of the new Baghdad security plan.
Caldwell noted that the Multi-National forces have divided the armed groups in Iraq into two groups: “either reconcilable or irreconcilable.” He explained that the second group includes “al-Qaeda and Shiite extremists.” Caldwell added that Muqtada al-Sadr “is not in Iraq and has not been in Iraq for some time. He is currently in Iran.”
Regarding reports about talks between the Multi-National forces and commanders in the Al-Mahdi Army, Caldwell said, “With the Iraqi Government’s blessing, the Multi-National forces have on-going talks with militia groups, including the Al-Mahdi Army. However, the Al-Mahdi Army is so fractured, and for example, we might speak to one group in Baghdad, but another group in Basra would be different”. He added that, “It would be irresponsible not to pursue all avenues – the political part of the plan means engagement and bringing all into the political process. There are irreconcilable groups, that includes Al-Qaeda and Shiaa extremist elements that we view as being irreconcilable – these are often personality based rather than group-based”.
He noted that the Multi-National forces and the Iraqi forces have launched “an intense operation against the death squads, and we have detained 700 elements of these squads until now.” Caldwell explained that the forces needed to implement the new Baghdad security plan, known as the “Law Enforcement” plan, are not complete yet, as additional American forces will not arrive before May. He said, “The plan is just beginning and all the parts are not in place yet and won’t be until May when all the additional forces arrive in Baghdad.” He added that the additional Iraqi forces earmarked for carrying out the plan have not been deployed in Baghdad yet. Caldwell explained that the deployment of 50,000 Iraqi troops in Baghdad would be completed within two weeks. He drew attention to the relative success of the security plan against the death and assassination squads. He explained that during the past two weeks, murders and assassinations in Baghdad declined by 46 percent, but the number of car bombs increased. He added that this is al-Qaeda’s way of imposing its presence in Iraq. Caldwell added that the Iraqi and Multi-National forces are trying to deal with the new wave of bombings, particularly through the establishment of “joint security stations,” which now have reached 14 stations in Baghdad and expected to increase to between 30 and 40 stations in the coming few weeks. He added that the existence of these stations meant that the American forces do not need to return to their large camps, but remain with the Iraqi forces to protect the civilians and track what takes place in the neighborhoods.
Regarding the arrest of Ammar al-Hakim, the son of Abdulaziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, for several hours last Friday, Caldwell said, “This was an unfortunate incident. The Iraqi border guards, supported by the Multi-National forces, were doing their jobs in making sure that they were not smugglers or persons who would endanger the lives of Iraqi civilians.” He added, “The people in the cars were belligerent and uncooperative”, thus escalating the confrontation between the two sides.