The military is in talks with elements of cleric Sadr's powerful group, which is accused of attacks against soldiers but which holds sway in much of Baghdad and parts of Iraq."
BAGHDAD -- -- U.S. diplomats and military officers have been in talks with members of the armed movement loyal to Muqtada Sadr, a sharp reversal of policy and a grudging recognition that the radical Shiite cleric holds a dominant position in much of Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.
The secret dialogue has been going on since at least early 2006, but appeared to yield a tangible result only in the last week -- with relative calm in an area of west Baghdad that has been among the capital's most dangerous sections.
The discussions have been complicated by divisions within Sadr's movement as well as the cleric's public vow never to meet with Iraq's occupiers. Underlying the issue's sensitivity, Sadrists publicly deny any contact with the Americans or British -- fully aware the price of acknowledging such meetings would be banishment from the movement or worse.
The dialogue represents a drastic turnaround in the U.S. approach to Sadr and his militia, the Mahdi Army.The military hopes to negotiate the same kind of marriage of convenience it has reached in other parts of Iraq with former insurgent groups, many Saddam Hussein loyalists, and the Sunni tribes that supported them. Both efforts are examples of how U.S. officials have sought to end violence by cooperating with groups they once considered intractable enemies.
In his testimony to Congress on Monday, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, underscored the importance of reaching out to the Mahdi Army, deflecting a suggestion that the U.S. declare the movement a terrorist group.
"You're not going to kill or capture all of the Sadr militia anymore than we are going to kill or capture all the insurgents in Iraq," Petraeus said. "Some of this is a little bit distasteful. It's not easy sitting across the table, let's say, or drinking tea with someone whose tribal members may have shot at our forces or in fact drawn the blood -- killed our forces."
MORALE of the Story: Talk first, before making enemies, to whom you end up speaking "distastefully"!