Meanwhile, Baghdad ploughs on with reform by voting in new assembly

The nascent democratic process struggled forward in mid-August with the appointment of a 100-strong National Council designed to provide checks and balances to the powers of the new interim government. Unsurprisingly for a country in turmoil and delegates unlikely to be able to remember previous eras of representative government, the conference to select the council was marred by divisions and allegations of corruption. But that the gathering occurred in the first place, against a backdrop of armed uprising, and reached a definitive conclusion within four days, was in itself cause for celebration.

The tale of political developments ever since the fall of Saddam Hussein has been one of hard-fought but fitful progress, often overshadowed by violent events on the ground. The groundbreaking gathering of 1,100 prominent figures in Baghdad proved no different, as the conference became embroiled in negotiating a truce with radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, holed up with fighters from the Mehdi army in the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf.

On 16 August, a delegation was sent to Najaf in an attempt to broker a truce in a conflict that has claimed either hundreds or dozens of lives – depending on whether the US or Mehdi army statistics are given credence. Al-Sadr refused to meet the group, citing security concerns. However, true to his maverick reputation, the following day the cleric responded positively to a letter drafted by the conference offering an amnesty to the militants in return for withdrawal from the mosque and a cessation of the fighting. The move appears to have been an expedient rather than a change of heart. The interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, keen to display its security credentials, made clear that time was running out for Al-Sadr to end the stand-off without facing an all-out assault by Iraqi security forces.

Al-Sadr’s message to the conference indicated willingness to withdraw from the Imam Ali shrine in return for US withdrawal from the area, an amnesty and an opportunity to join the political process. Caution greeted the offer. The cleric agreed ceasefires in May and June only to return to arms, and fighting continued in Najaf on 19 August. Mehdi army branches operate in the majority of Shia-dominated towns as far south as Basra – evident in clashes between UK forces and militants in the southern city on 17 August. Hostage-taking by Al-Sadr’s supporters continues, with Al-Jazeera broadcasting footage on the same day showing a kidnapped American journalist being held in Nasiriyah by militants who threatened to kill him unless US forces withdrew from Najaf within 48 hours. And in Baghdad fierce clashes broke out between the Americans and Mehdi army members on 18 August in the Shia district of Sadr City.

Some of the contradictory messages and brinkmanship can be attributed to splits within Al-Sadr’s loosely bound movement, particularly between those with a genuine political and religious agenda and large numbers of disenfranchised young men attracted to the Mehdi army out of generalised dissatisfaction with the status quo.

While Al-Sadr negotiates a potential entry to the political mainstream, more moderate partisans were already in evidence at the national conference. Allawi delivered the opening address on 15 August, telling his audience: ‘Your blessing here is a challenge for the forces of evil and tyranny that want to destroy this country and this assembly.’ He then swiftly withdrew as loud protests greeted his speech. The first day was the most tumultuous, with Al-Sadr supporters chanting demands for the Americans to withdraw from Najaf, after which the meeting became more peaceful – at least inside the conference hall: a mortar attack close to the building forced adjournment on 17 August and an unscheduled fourth day of talks.

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