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Mehdi Army makes a killing over arms surrender

By Atul Aneja



CASH-FOR-WEAPONS DEAL: Some of the weapons deposited by the followers of Moqtada Al-Sadr at the Al Jazaer police station in Sadr City on Wednesday. — AP

MANAMA, OCT. 13 . Loyalists of Moqtada Al-Sadr have been handing over their heavy weapons for the third consecutive day, but the move is unlikely to weaken the radical Shia cleric who has twice led an uprising against the American occupation forces in Iraq.

Under the deal worked out with the Americans, Mr. Al-Sadr's Mehdi Army in Baghdad's sprawling Shia slum, Sadr city, is not going to disband. It is handing over its heavy weapons, but is retaining light arms. In return, the Mehdi Army militiamen are receiving cash. Under the U.S. sponsored cash-for-weapons deal, those depositing their arms would receive one dollar for a single bullet, $150 for an assault rifle, $500 for a rocket propelled grenade launcher and $1,000 for a heavy machine-gun.

`A mirage'

Analysts point out that with the cash available, the fighters can rearm, as Iraq is flush with weapons that can be easily purchased. The Associated Press quoted Jeremy Benny of London's Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments as saying that, "The Mehdi Army's disarmament is something of a mirage." He added that it was extremely unlikely that Mr. Al-Sadr's fighters would surrender all their medium and heavy weapons. Besides, "they will be able to easily replace anything they give up, especially as they are receiving money in exchange for weapons," he observed.

Military option

While keeping his military option open, Mr. Al-Sadr's has emphasised that he had not shifted from his primary political objective of seeing the end of the American occupation of Iraq.

Soon after the deal, struck earlier this month, materialised, his spokesman said the Al-Sadr movement still considered the occupation to be the main issue plaguing Iraq.

"Resistance to occupation is legitimate," he said. "Even the Americans have said resisting the occupation is legitimate. We reject their military presence here."

While Mr. Al-Sadr has only made a verbal commitment to surrendering heavy arms, he has already made progress in achieving some of his longstanding goals. For instance, the U.S. forces released a senior aide to Mr. Al-Sadr, Moayed Khazraji, who had been detained during an earlier U.S. crackdown. Apart from releasing some of Mr. Al-Sadr's senior advisers, U.S. forces have agreed to free some of the detained Mehdi fighters.

Entering politics?

Some analysts point out that by arriving at an understanding with the U.S. authorities, Mr. Al-Sadr has signalled his intention to enter the Iraqi political mainstream on his own terms, ahead of the elections in January.

"Mr. Al-Sadr had throughout been preparing the ground to enter the political mainstream. He has now exercised his strategic choice," Ahmed Ibrahim Mahmoud of Cairo's Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told The Hindu over telephone.

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