From the disrupted Iraqi National Conference in Baghdad to the low-key threat of secession from Shi’ite leaders in southern Iraq, the entire country’s future may be determined by events in the holy city of Najaf.
The National Conference, where 1,300 Iraqi delegates were to meet for three days and elect the 100-member National Council, was extended for a day to accommodate an attempt by several delegates to meet with rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Najaf.
The conference opened Sunday to several delegates’ insistence that the crises in Najaf be immediately addressed. One delegate, Yahya Mussawi, rushed the speaker’s podium.
"It is time that you heard us and we ask that military operations stop in Najaf immediately and dialogue take place," he shouted before chief conference organizer Fuad Massum had him forced down, according to Agence France-Presse. AFP notes that Mussawi participated in efforts this spring to thwart Sadr’s uprising.
Approximately 60 delegates were to leave the conference Tuesday for the 100-mile journey south to Najaf, but due to security concerns, an eight-member team was brought to the city by two U.S. Army helicopters.
"This is not a negotiation," delegation leader Sheikh Hussein al-Sadr told reporters upon arriving in Najaf. "This is a friendly mission to convey the message of the National Conference."
Hussein al-Sadr, a distant relative of the rebel Shi’ite cleric, had laid out that message the day before when he proposed that Moqtada’s Mehdi Army leave their stronghold at the Imam Ali Shrine, disband and become a political party, and in return be given clemency by the government, reports the Associated Press.
"This is not right," Hussein al-Sadr said at the convention Monday. "We demand Moqtada al-Sadr withdraw from the holy shrine because it’s not the specific property of one person. It belongs to everybody."
Possibly undercutting Hussein al-Sadr’s proposal, U.S.-appointed interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi issued a statement echoing the delegate’s conditions that Moqtada al-Sadr’s followers lay down their arms and join Iraq’s political process, but fell short of promising not to prosecute Mehdi fighters if they disband.
"The militia must disarm with no preconditions," said Allawi in a statement read aloud by the minister of state for provinces, Wael Abdel Latif, following a cabinet meeting Monday, reports AFP.
Moqtada al-Sadr has already condemned Allawi for approving the overwhelming force that devastated Najaf when U.S.-led troops launched air and land assaults earlier this month.
The rebel leader’s aides told reporters Tuesday that after making Baghdad’s delegates wait for three hours, Moqtada al-Sadr refused to meet with them, citing the ongoing hostilities. Several news agencies reported sporadic fighting in Najaf throughout the day.
Threats of Secession
During a two-day truce for negotiations last week, al-Jazeera TV reported that several leaders in Iraq’s besieged southern region were outraged by the tactics used in Najaf and were threatening to secede from the governing authority in Baghdad.
"This reaction comes in response to the crimes committed against Iraqis by an illegal and unelected government and occupation forces who claimed they came to liberate Iraq, but it turned out that they have come to kill Iraqis," the head of the Misan governate council told al-Jazeera last week. "Iyad Allawi should not expect us to support him. … We expected this government to give us justice, democracy and freedom."
Ali Hamud al-Musawi also threatened to shut off Misan’s oil supply "until Baghdad’s government restores its logic."
About half of southern Iraq’s oil capacity did indeed come to a halt last week, according to an Aug. 10 report in South Africa’s Daily News, though industry officials said it was alleged threats from the Mehdi Army that led to a voluntary precautionary shutdown. The production pause cut Iraq’s daily capacity approximately in half, an anonymous "South Oil Company official" later told Reuters.
Then on Monday saboteurs set ablaze an oil well near Basra. The Iraqi government was quick to blame Mehdi operatives for the fire, though the tactic is not one Mehdi forces have been known to use in the past. Apparently no one has claimed responsibility for the strike.
Basra’s deputy governor, Salam Uda al-Maliki, also supported separating from the central authority, stating that Iraq’s interim government was "responsible for the Najaf clashes," according to both The Guardian and al-Jazeera.
Like al-Muwasi, al-Maliki is considering using oil as a bargaining tool, and has threatened to shut Basra’s port, "informed sources" told al-Jazeera
Dismissing the threat, a state minister responded that as a municipal official, Basra’s deputy governor is not a representative of the government.
"We do not recognize him. Let him say whatever he likes," Adnan al-Janabi told al-Jazeera
In Nasiriyah, a representative of the cleric Sadr said, "The authorities in Nasiriyah will no longer cooperate with Baghdad," reports The Guardian, which also notes that secession could be legal under Iraq’s interim constitution if collectively chosen by three governorates.
While Article 53 (C) of the Transitional Administrative Law does allow groups "of no more than three" the "right to form regions from amongst themselves," the National Assembly must approve the move, and the residents of the relevant governorates would have to vote to affirm measure in a referendum.