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Truce in Najaf

May 27, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: The Najaf story. I talked this evening with Dexter Filkins of the New York Times in Baghdad. Dexter Filkins, welcome. Can you outline for me what was in the agreement that ended the siege at Najaf, and give us an idea who the U.S. was negotiating with?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, the agreement calls for the withdrawal… or I should say the disappearance of the Mahdi army– not really the withdrawal at all– and after that happens, the withdrawal of the American forces from the city. It’s basically that simple. What’s interesting about this agreement is what it doesn’t do. You know, it doesn’t call for the detention of Muqtada Sadr, doesn’t call for the disarming of the fighters, doesn’t call for the fighters to leave. So it’s a pretty ugly compromise.

The Americans didn’t do the negotiating. They were involved. They were watching them. There was a couple of interesting moments apparently yesterday, where the Americans were balking at accepting some of the provisions, and the religious leadership, the Shiite religious leadership in Najaf apparently read the riot act to both the Americans and the Mahdi army, and said, “look, we want this siege… we want this standoff to end, and we’re not taking ‘no’ for an answer,” and that’s apparently when it proceeded.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, does the final form of the truce represent a major departure from what the U.S. said it had sought in Najaf earlier in the conflict?

DEXTER FILKINS: Yes, it does. I mean, there’s really no way to… there’s no way to sugar coat it. For months the U.S. has been saying, “our objective is to kill or capture Muqtada Sadr; we will destroy the Mahdi army,” et cetera. What’s happening today doesn’t amount to that at all. Muqtada… tomorrow is Friday, which is the big prayer day. He’ll be at his mosque in Kufa, you know, banging away and stirring people up. The Mahdi army guys, which we had some people today talk to them, they’re just walking home with Kalashnikovs in hand. So I think at best it’s a short- term… they’re buying some time. But I think the troubling prospect is that the Mahdi army, just like the insurgents in Fallujah, can really come back any time they choose.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, as far as the United States is concerned, is Muqtada al-Sadr still wanted in connection with the murder of Abdul Majid al-Khoei?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, you know, this is A… it’s a tricky question because if you ask the Americans about it, they say, “well, this is an Iraqi arrest warrant.” But of course, officially, really legally, there is no Iraqi government; it’s an American government. So the Americans are saying… the Americans have agreed… the Iraqi government has agreed to suspend this warrant against Muqtada. So they’re going to pretend really like it’s not there for a while. I think frankly what’s likely to happen is that as sovereignty passes to the Iraqis, I think this warrant will probably go away, when the American influence officially ends.

RAY SUAREZ: Can the fact that the United States stepped back from arresting Muqtada al-Sadr speak to a different position for him inside the big names among Iraqi Shia now? During this conflict, has he gained in stature?

DEXTER FILKINS: Absolutely. I was in Karbala yesterday. Karbala was almost the same kind of event happened. It wasn’t the result of a deal, but the Americans pulled out; the Mahdi army disappeared. So I went in yesterday. There were posters of Muqtada on every street corner; a lot of people speaking very highly of him. But I should still say that as far as I can tell, this guy is not loved and adored by millions and millions of Iraqis. I mean, I think he probably has gained in stature here, but when you compare him, say, to the Ayatollah Sistani, there’s really no comparison at all. And I think that’s what you saw at work here: The religious leaders– Ayatollah Sistani– finally put their foot down and said, “look, we want you out of here,” and it happened just like that. I think there was probably some sharp words being said to Mr. Sadr that we didn’t get to hear.

RAY SUAREZ: And on the road back to Baghdad from Najaf, there was an ambush today?

DEXTER FILKINS: There was an ambush today. When you… there’s a terrible stretch of road just south of Baghdad. There’s a couple of small Sunni-dominated towns right in the middle of what is otherwise predominantly Shiite area, and I mean, just off the top of my head, I think four journalists have been killed there, six Spanish intelligence agents. It’s just a terrible stretch of road. There was a governing council member whose convoy was ambushed tonight. We’ve been trying to find out what her condition is, and there’s no word yet.

RAY SUAREZ: This was Salama al- Khafaji?

DEXTER FILKINS: Yeah, Salama al-Khafaji. She’s an interesting woman. I mean, remarkable of course that she’s a woman, but she took the place of Akila Hashimi, who was a governing council member who was last September– who was murdered last September. So it’s a high-risk job. They’re all targets.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you know if there was loss of life, whether or not al-Khafaji… her condition has been confirmed. Was there significant loss of life in the convoy?

DEXTER FILKINS: Don’t know. I mean, we’ve talked to several Iraqi leaders tonight. We’ve talked to the American military that’s in control of the area, and they say that there’s being aid rendered at the scene. It’s in a little town called Yousefia, I think, just a very small town, but a dangerous area, and… but there’s no word on any casualties.

RAY SUAREZ: Dexter Filkins of the New York Times, thanks for being with us.