The leader of one of the most powerful militias in Iraq, Moqtada al-Sadr, is to order his followers to disarm and transform themselves into a purely social and political organisation, according to a new strategy document published yesterday.
Such a shift would mark a significant step forward for US and Iraqi government attempts to pacify Iraq.
Sadr's Mahdi army, committed to forcing US troops out of Iraq, has been behind much of the violence since the 2003 invasion. His forces have maintained a ceasefire since May.
According to the document, a copy of which has been obtained by the Wall Street Journal and whose authenticity has been confirmed by a Mahdi army spokesman, Sheikh Salah al-Obeidi, the militia will concentrate in future on education, provision of social services and religion.
It tells Sadr's followers that "it is not allowed to use arms at all". Posters have been spotted around Baghdad saying the changes will be announced at Friday prayers.
Sadr's shift comes after a crackdown by Iraqi forces on the Mahdi army in its Baghdad stronghold, Sadr City, as well as Amarrah and Basra in the south earlier this year.
US military and diplomatic sources yesterday welcomed the prospect of the Mahdi army laying down its arms, but expressed strong scepticism, given previous statements by Sadr that were followed by renewed outbursts of violence.
Despite the US caution, the document is consistent with recent statements by Sadr, who was in Iran earlier this year pursuing religious studies. He appears to be readying himself for elections scheduled for October, though the failure of Iraqi parliamentarians to reach a deal yesterday could push that into next year.
The new document is in line with a statement from Sadr last week in which he called for the Iraqi government not to enter into any deals with the US government, which he continued to refer to as "the occupier". But significantly he called for peaceful resistance to the US forces.
The Mahdi army, a predominantly Shia Muslim grouping, and al-Qaida in Iraq have been two of the biggest forces behind much of the violence of the last five years. The Pentagon claims that it has al-Qaida, an almost exclusively Sunni Muslim organisation responsible for some of the worst atrocities, on the run.
There has been a reduction in violence in Iraq over the last year and the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, has hinted he will recommend to President George Bush later this month or early next a reduction in the 156,000 US troops based in Iraq and supply bases in Kuwait.
The Mahdi army spokesman, Obeidi, told the Wall Street Journal that the group would now be guided by spirituality rather than battling US forces. The document says the aim is promoting virtue and preventing vice through words and moral behaviour. But some hardliners in the Mahdi army may ignore Sadr's call, as they have in the past when he called short-lived ceasefires.
Sadr, 34, one of the most influential Shia leaders in Iraq, rose to prominence after the fall of Saddam Hussein. He came from one of the most important religious families in the forefront of resistance to Saddam and which suffered at his hands.
Amid the chaos of post-invasion Iraq, Sadr's militia seized control of Sadr City and other Shia areas and established security as well as a basic welfare network. His forces have since repeatedly engaged US and British troops in open battle.
British forces have been less involved since handing over Basra city to Iraqi forces and holing up at Basra international airport.
The Ministry of Defence denied a report in yesterday's Times that the 4,000 troops had stood by for a week in March while Iraqi and US troops clashed with the Mahdi army because they had a secret deal with Sadr.
The British military and diplomats, while responsible for southern Iraq, did enter into a series of deals in places such as Amarrah, while publicly denying it. They allowed militia groups a degree of control. But the MoD insisted yesterday that British forces in March had provided a "raft of support" to US and Iraqi forces during the March fighting.
In a separate development, Ron Suskind, a US journalist, claimed yesterday that the White House had faked a letter purporting to establish a link between Saddam and al-Qaida in the run-up to the war. The letter, published in the Daily Telegraph, was supposedly written by Tahir Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti, director of Iraqi intelligence, in 2001.
The allegation is made in Suskind's new book, The Way of the World. The then acting head of the CIA, George Tenet, said he had no memory of such a letter.
The US and UK must now provide explanations to Ron Suskind's claims about intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war.
In his new book, The Way of the World, Ron Suskind makes the following claims:
• MI6, Britain's secret intelligence service, told Tony Blair before the invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein did not have any weapons of mass destruction. The intelligence was passed to the US but the White House buried it.
• At the beginning of 2003, weeks before the invasion of Iraq, MI6 sent Michael Shipster, one of its senior officers, to Amman, the Jordanian capital, to meet Tahir Jalil Habbush, the head of Iraqi intelligence. Sir Richard Dearlove, then head of MI6, described the secret mission as an "attempt to try, as it were, I'd say, to defuse the whole situation". He said the "Cheney crowd" was in too much of a hurry and Bush did not resist them strongly enough.
• Nigel Inkster, a former MI6 officer, confirmed that Habbush told Shipster there were no banned weapons in Iraq. Rob Richer, a former CIA officer, said Britain wanted to avoid a war, but Bush wanted one.
The American Pulitzer prize-winning author has got things wrong in the past and it is extremely difficult in the spooky world to get at the truth. Sometimes, the best criterion – at least, before more evidence emerges confirming or denying the claims – is plausibility. Unless convincing rebuttals emerge soon, Suskind will be given the benefit of the doubt.
In the run-up to war, senior British security and intelligence officials made it clear – privately – that they were strongly opposed to the invasion of Iraq. Dearlove, we know from a leaked Downing Street minute, warned Blair in July 2002 after he returned from a visit to Washington, that the "intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy". Unfortunately, those officials did not have the courage to say what they thought and believed, if necessary if it meant that they would have to resign. On the contrary, as the Hutton inquiry and the Butler report so damningly demonstrated, they succumbed to political pressure, allowing Blair to go along with Bush's war.
The Butler report savaged the government's now-discredited Iraqi weaspons dossier. It also described in detail how MI6 placed far too much reliance on claims by its agents that Saddam had amassed weapons of mass destruction than it should have and appeared to ignore contrary evidence, such as that now claimed to have come from Habbush.
"Ultimately, Habbush could not offer proof that weapons that didn't exist, didn't exist," Suskind writes. George Tenet, CIA director at the time, claims that Habbush had "failed to persuade" the British that he had "anything new to offer by way of intelligence".
Tenet said in a statement: "There were many Iraqi officials who said both publicly and privately that Iraq had no WMD – but our foreign intelligence colleagues and we assessed that these individuals were parroting the Ba'ath party line and trying to delay any coalition attack. The particular source that Suskind cites offered no evidence to back up his assertion and acted in an evasive and unconvincing manner."
Dearlove complained last year that the Blair government placed too much weight on intelligence claims in order to help persuade opponents in parliament to support the war. That was a cop-out.
If Habbush was talking to MI6, then who better as a source? If MI6 – and the CIA – did not believe him, who else did they believe? And why? What is the point of having intelligence agencies? After the invasion, Habbush was paid $5m by the CIA for serving as an informant and resettled in Jordan. According to Suskind, White House officials susbsequently used him to help with a forgery.
In September 2003, Suskind writes, the White House directed Tenet to concoct a fake letter, backdated to July 2001 but bearing Habbush's signature, claiming that Mohamed Atta, leader of the September 11 hijackers, had been trained in Iraq for the mission. Habbush agreed to sign the letter, which was then leaked to a the Sunday Telegraph.
We already know that Cheney and Co put it about, and persuaded some CIA officers to agree, that there was a link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein, a claim which a moment's thought would conclude was preposterous. Some British journalists bought the claim but at least, on this issue, MI6 did its best to quash it.
Suskind's claims need to be explained convincingly. Angry denials in Washington, and silence in London, are no good.
Postscript (August 7 2008, 18:30): Since this article was first posted (on August 6 2008), I have been able to talk to Nigel Inkster. After reading the comments attributed to him in Suskind's book, he could only describe them as "inaccurate and misleading". Inkster says:
"Mr Suskind appears to have conflated separate conversations; one about the problems of reading Saddam Hussein's intentions, an issue which is dealt with in the Butler report, and one about Habbush. I made it clear to Mr Suskind that I was in no position to comment on the substance or significance of any dealings with the latter since I had not been privy to the detail of what had taken place, something Mr Suskind has chosen not to mention. And, in any event, I had made it clear to Mr Suskind, when first he approached me, that I would not divulge classified information to which I had had access during my time in government.
"Mr Suskind's characterisation of our meeting is more the stuff of creative fiction than serious reportage, and seeks to make more of it than the circumstances or the content warranted."
OTTAWA – Today in the House of Commonds there was a vote 137-110 for a non-binding motion to allow Iraqi War Resisters to stay in Canada.
The motion was extremely important and timely for Corey Glass, a US war resister ordered to leave Canada by June the 12th. Although non-binding, this could move the goverment to offer a last-minute reprieve to Glass's deportation order.