BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s two most powerful Shi’ite leaders have signed their first written agreement, pledging to prevent bloodshed by working together to avoid confrontation, Iraqi officials said on Saturday.
Supporters of fiery cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC) are locked in a violent struggle for control of the towns and cities in Iraq’s predominantly Shi’ite south.
Political analysts fear the struggle for dominance in the southern regions, where U.S. forces have little or no presence, will intensify ahead provincial elections expected next year.
“Sayyed Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Sayyed Moqtada al-Sadr have agreed on the necessity of preserving and respecting Iraqi blood under any condition,” said the agreement signed by Hakim and Sadr and seen by Reuters on Saturday.
Feuding between Iraq’s Shi’ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds has all but paralyzed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government and prevented progress on key reforms wanted by Washington.
The United States sent 30,000 more troops to Iraq this year to try to halt sectarian violence and give politicians a breathing space to reconcile their differences.
The number of civilian and U.S. deaths dropped markedly in September but there has been little progress in parliament and sectarian killings still plague the country.
The security push was seen as a final attempt by the U.S. military to prevent all-out war between majority Shi’ite and minority Sunni Arabs.
More than 1,000 people in the predominantly Shi’ite Baghdad neighborhood of al-Washash held rare demonstration on Saturday to protest against what they say are U.S. plans to erect a wall around their district.
Carrying an Iraqi flag and banners condemning the wall the marchers chanted “No, no to the wall. No, no to America”.
The U.S. military provoked international outrage earlier this year when it began erecting a high concrete barrier to shield a Sunni Arab enclave in Baghdad from Shi’ite communities.
The U.S. military has said it will build concrete walls in at least five Baghdad neighborhoods to protect them from gunmen as part of its security crackdown.
Maliki’s ruling Shi’ite United Alliance welcomed the deal struck by Sadr and Hakim. The alliance fractured last month when the political movement loyal to Sadr, which has the same number of seats as Hakim’s grouping, pulled out.
The agreement between Hakim and Sadr recommended forming committees in all provinces to work on bringing the two group’ views together and managing problems.
“This deal could be seen as the first step towards preventing clashes and fighting between the two groups, especially after the Sadrists pulled out of the alliance,” a Shi’ite official in the Alliance told Reuters.
“It is a good deal, a good step and a good sign.”
Two SIIC governors of southern provinces were assassinated in August. Then at least 52 people were killed when Sadr’s Mehdi Army militia clashed in Kerbala with police linked to Hakim’s rival SIIC and its Badr Organisation.
Iraqi Shi’ite officials said Saturday’s deal was aimed at preventing clashes similar to those in Kerbala in August.
Sadr has since suspended armed action by the Mehdi Army for up to six months. Sadr’s aides said the order was to let Sadr weed out rogue elements in the militia.
Additional reporting by Haider Salahuddin