TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Officials in Iran confirmed for the first time Saturday that the country played an important role in brokering a recent truce between the Iraqi government and anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Shiite Iran helped end the clashes between Iraqi government troops and al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia for the sake of Shiite unity, said a senior Iranian official who deals with Iraq.
“It is in Iran’s best interests to see unity among Shiite factions,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki heads a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, but has clashed with other Shiite factions in the country, including the one led by al-Sadr.
The Iraqi prime minister sparked clashes with al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army over a week ago when he sent government troops to Basra to crack down on Shiite militias. The fighting eased last Sunday after al-Sadr ordered his men off the streets and called on the Iraqi government to end its attacks.
The Iranian government helped broker the truce during high-level talks in Iran’s holy city of Qom with Shiite Iraqi officials and senior supporters of al-Sadr, said a prominent Iraqi party official based in Tehran.
“Iran played a mediating role and helped ease things a lot,” said the Iraqi official, also speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “Given its influence over al-Sadr, Iran convinced the Sadrists to stop fighting,” he said. The Iraqi government sent a three-member delegation that was headed by a prominent Shiite lawmaker close to al-Maliki, Ali Adeeb, and also included two of his Shiite colleagues, Hadi al-Amri and Qassem Sahlani, said the Iraqi official based in Tehran. The meetings in Qom also included representatives from Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, he said.
Al-Sadr is believed to divide his time between Qom and Najaf, another Shiite holy city in Iraq 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Baghdad. But Iranian government spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham denied al-Sadr’s presence in Iran on Saturday, saying “this is what the occupying forces claim to diver the attention from what is going on in Iraq.”
Iran has been accused of supplying weapons, money and training to most Iraqi Shiite factions, including al-Sadr loyalists, charges Iran has denied. Iran’s role in hammering out the peace deal is believed to have boosted Tehran’s influence among Iraq’s majority Shiite community.
U.S. and Iraqi authorities have insisted the Basra operation was not aimed at al-Sadr’s powerful political movement but was aimed at ridding the streets of criminals and gunmen who had effectively ruled the city since 2005. But al-Sadr’s supporters believe the crackdown was aimed at weakening their movement before provincial elections this fall. Al-Sadr expects to score major electoral gains against Shiite parties that work with the Americans.
The peace deal calmed the violence but left the Mahdi Army intact and the U.S.-backed Iraqi prime minister politically battered and humbled within his own Shiite power base.
Al-Maliki ordered a nationwide freeze Friday on Iraqi raids against Shiite militants, bowing to one of the key demands in al-Sadr’s call for a truce. The statement was issued only a day after al-Maliki told reporters he intended to launch security operations against Mahdi Army strongholds in Baghdad, including Sadr City, home to some 2.5 million Shiites and the militia’s largest base. The confrontation enabled al-Sadr to show that he remains a powerful force capable of challenging the Iraqi government, the Americans and mainstream Shiite parties that have sought for years to marginalize him.