Al-Hakim on Thursday also acknowledged the contribution of U.S.-backed Sunni Arab groups to the decline in violence across Iraq and called for their use in the continuing fight against al-Qaida.
BAGHDAD (AP) — Representatives of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr met Thursday with officials from his chief rival’s party in an effort to cement a tenuous peace agreement the two signed in October after violent clashes between their followers.
It was at least the second formal overture al-Sadr has made to Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim and his Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the largest Shiite political party, in less than a week.
Peace between the two — who each control powerful militias — is seen as key to preventing the outbreak of widespread fighting in oil-rich southern Iraq, where the British military recently handed over responsibility for security to Iraq’s government in Basra, the last province it controlled.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, announced the deaths of three of its soldiers. Two were killed and a third wounded in a small arms attack Thursday in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. A soldier was killed the previous day in south Baghdad when his dismounted patrol hit a roadside bomb, the military said.
A delegation from al-Sadr’s office in Kufa, led by Sheik Muhanned al-Gharrawi, met with the Dhi Qar provincial governor Aziz Kadhim Alwan, a member of al-Hakim’s party, and other local officials in Nasiriyah, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad. In the past, al-Sadr followers have had violent clashes with the governor’s guards.
“The province should live in peace and security without armed violence and disorder,” Alwan said after the meeting. Al-Gharrawi said the talks were meant to “end political and military” violence in the province and “to protect citizens’ lives.”
In August, followers of al-Sadr and fighters loyal to al-Hakim clashed in the holy city of Karbala during a religious festival, killing 52 people. In October, the two leaders signed their truce, which has largely held.
On Saturday, al-Sadr called for a reconciliation with Iraqi security forces in Karbala, where authorities have cracked down on his followers since the August violence.
Shortly after the Karbala fighting, al-Sadr announced he was freezing the activities of his Mahdi Army militia for six months — a move that both Iraqi and American officials say has been a major factor in the sharp decrease in violence.
The differences between the two camps, however, are too complex and deep to be resolved at the level of Thursday’s meeting. Their rivalry mirrors class distinctions within the Shiite community as well as the longtime competition of the al-Sadr and al-Hakim families for the religious leadership of the holy city of Najaf, Shiite Islam’s primary seat of learning.
The rivalry is likely to come to a head when local elections are held nationwide, possibly this year. The two camps will spare no effort to dominate provincial councils in nine provinces south of Baghdad. Beside the oil reserves, southern Iraq has a prize in the wealth and prestige of the shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala, visited by millions every year.
Separately on Thursday, al-Hakim called for unity among Shiites, arguing that closing ranks would benefit the whole of Iraq since they are the majority.
“Every one must work to support and boost this unity,” he told supporters in Najaf.
He also acknowledged the contribution of Sunni militias, which have more than 70,000 members, to the decline in violence and called for their use in the continuing fight against al-Qaida in Iraq.
“Today, we are witnessing the decline of terrorism and the progress of reconciliation on the popular level with Sunni-Shiite solidarity,” he said, alluding to the government’s perceived failure to achieve political reconciliation among Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish groups.
U.S. commanders have also credited the Sunni militias with playing a major role in the decline in violence over the past six months.
But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has been deeply uneasy about the potential for the Sunni fighters — now better-organized and armed — to switch sides again, posing a threat to stability and the Shiite domination that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime.