Sadr could halt insurgency to fight elections in January

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The Independent Online

US officials yesterday joined the growing effort to coax militant Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr into joining the nascent electoral process.

US officials yesterday joined the growing effort to coax militant Shia cleric Muqtada Sadr into joining the nascent electoral process.

The move followed indications by aides to Sadr, who was ordered last week by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to withdraw his insurgents from the holy sites of Najaf, that he was ready to end the fighting in Baghdad's Shia stronghold of Sadr City and contest January elections.

A senior US diplomat said it was "conceivable" that Sadr, a leading figure in the agitation for US troops to withdraw from Iraq, would "complete the transition from militia leader to political leader".

Asked about the prospects of Sadr abandoning the armed insurgency and being given the freedom to fight the elections, if and when they take place, the US diplomat said: "These are decisions the Iraqi authorities will have to take themselves."

He added: "You see what Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and other have said about the possibility, and, indeed, desirability, of Muqtada Sadr entering the process. If you take a cold look at the political scene it is clear he has a constituency which does not go away even if the Mehdi Army does."

He said that the huge and densely populated suburb of Sadr City, scene of heavy fighting between insurgents and US forces over the past few weeks, and with well over a million mainly Shia residents, would be a key electoral battleground. Mr Allawi has already indicated he wants to pump regeneration funds into the suburb.

The moves follow a poll taken at the end of July which showed 56 per cent of electors were positive about Sadr, although much less so than about Mr Allawi, who rated well with 72 per cent of those polled.

Sadr's ratings are expected to drop significantly in the wake of the battle for Najaf.

Fifty-seven per cent of Iraqis also thought that the security situation had improved in the month since sovereignty had been handed over by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

The poll also showed a large majority were less likely to vote for a party without a militia.

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