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Iraq’s Leading Shiite Clerics Agree to a Peace Plan

August 26, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Dexter Filkins, welcome to the broadcast. Tell us what you can about this deal that has just been announced in the last few hours, and whether it seems to be holding as we speak.

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, a press conference was called here at 11 PM, and actually the police came over to a hotel, just about the only hotel open in town, the streets here are just deserted. They came over with their sirens blaring and said it’s over, it’s over. And you’ve got to go to Sistani’s house, so we all drove across town in the dark.

There was a quick press conference short on details. What they said it was a representative of Sistani and only Sistani, not Sadr’s people, who said we’ve got a deal. There was a meeting between Ayatollah Sistani, who of course returned today, and Muqtada al- Sadr, that Muqtada had agreed to all of the conditions that Sistani has laid down to end the siege here and the fighting.

And those main ones, those conditions are that the Mahdi army would leave the shrine, the Americans would pull out and the Iraqi police would come in.

They didn’t want to talk about the details and they were very skittish about it. And you could actually see, we saw in the corner of our eyes Muqtada al-Sadr actually leaving the house, as the press conference started. So it was an interesting, it was an interesting bit of theater.

TERENCE SMITH: Does the cease- fire, is there a cease-fire, does it appear to be holding as we speak a few hours later?

DEXTER FILKINS: Yes. Well, the cease-fire was announced this afternoon, as kind of a sweetener for Muqtada. It took place — it started 3 PM when Ayatollah Sistani came to town and it has helped. There was some fighting, there was a lot of fighting overnight, and fighting into the afternoon stopped.

There was a lot of, there were other sorts of violence which we’ll talk about, but in terms of fighting between the Americans and the Mahdi army, it’s been very, very quiet here, the quietest it’s been in several days.

TERENCE SMITH: And do you see or is there any evidence of any implementation of this deal, any movement by U.S. forces to pull back, any activity among the Iraqi police? I know it’s a small hours of the morning there. But anything you can tell us?

DEXTER FILKINS: It’s my understanding that the Americans have not pulled back. At some point they’re only about 100 yards away from the shrine now — they pulled really or pushed really deeply into the city. No, there hasn’t been any implementation. I think that the mystery and the things that went unsaid here was tonight at his press conference was how this agreement is going to be implemented, how is the Mahdi army going to leave the shrine and really how are they going to do it with their dignity intact, I think, was the big question.

Sistani doesn’t want to humiliate Muqtada, that wouldn’t be useful. And it wasn’t really clear how this is going to work. And as I said, as far as we know, as of late this afternoon, the Mahdi army was still all around the shrine, very, very diminished force, I mean, probably fewer than 100 guys there now, and the Americans were still arrayed around it.

We’re going, we’ll find out later tonight and probably tomorrow morning if, how this is going to work, if at all.

TERENCE SMITH: And are you here in Najaf hearing anything from Baghdad in terms of the interim government approving this and agreeing to this deal?

DEXTER FILKINS: It’s my understanding that the interim government has agreed. It was very fuzzy tonight. The one thing that they did want to talk about at the press conference was a demonstration that was supposed to happen today. It didn’t happen today because of the terrible violence.

And they were very pleased to say that we’ve agreed to allow this demonstration and this march to happen, in the early morning hours but we need the government’s approval and we’d like to have it, and it’s our understanding that that approval has been given.

But it’s pretty clear that the government of Allawi would love to have a deal that would end this crisis, so I think you can assume that they would be enthusiastic if this deal can be implemented.

TERENCE SMITH: So are you anticipating some sort of demonstration tomorrow, Friday, and would that be among the supporters of ali Sistani, those who accompanied him as he came into Najaf today?

DEXTER FILKINS: Yeah. It’s very curious. Again, there was so many things that were unanswered today. They said we’re going to allow this demonstration, but, and again this is 11:00 at night when they’re saying this, we’re going to allow the demonstration on Friday but everybody has to be out of the shrine, all the marchers have to be out of the shrine by 10 A.M. tomorrow morning.

Now, you know, there’s thousands of people camped outside the city who have come down from Baghdad and Basra and other places. And here not going to get word of that, and so it’s a little curious as to how this is actually supposed to unfold — if at all. So, there’s some things to worry about like what will high pressure if all these people actually do come into the city.

We saw what happened today when just a few thousand people came in. They’re supposed to be a lot more than that camped out on the outside. So again, it’s a little, when you start looking at the details of the thing and it’s a little, it’s a little odd. But I think we’re going to learn a lot in the next couple days.

TERENCE SMITH: And are you also expecting at some point to hear directly on television or any other means from Muqtada al-Sadr himself?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, that’s what Mr. … said today, he said I expect you’ll be hearing from him on television, he’s going to make a statement. Now, that’s interesting because, you know, in the past Sistani’s people, the Iraqi government, the Americans have thought that they’ve had agreements with Muqtada over Najaf, over the shrine, the uprising back in April, the first uprising.

And when it came down to listening to Muqtada and when he started to talk about it, it became clear that there was no agreement at all and so it’s — so we’re all, I can tell you that we’re all here at this hotel where all of us journalists are gathered, we’re all waiting and waiting on the television to see Muqtada actually come on, if he does, because it will be interesting to see, it will be interesting to hear his interpretation of this agreement.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, we’ll be waiting with you because obviously there’s a great deal to be played out probably in the next day or so. Dexter Filkins of the New York Times, thank you very much.