U.S. and Iraqi officials on Tuesday discussed ways to step up aid to Najaf and a war-battered neighborhood in Baghdad after rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on his followers to end their uprising.
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi told tribal leaders from Baghdad's impoverished Sadr City slum — scene of fierce clashes between U.S. forces and al-Sadr's militia — that the government had allocated $115 million for projects there to improve public services including water, electricity and sewage.
"The resumption and the stability of life in your city and in the whole of Iraq is a very important issue," Allawi said.
Meanwhile, James Jeffrey, the second-ranking U.S. diplomat in Baghdad, met with Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi in the holy city of Najaf to assess the "immediate needs of the city" and examine ways to rebuild it. Parts of Najaf, particularly around the Old City, were heavily damaged during three weeks of fighting.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have repeatedly complained that sabotage, fighting and assassinations of government officials across the country has badly hampered efforts to rebuild the country after years of war and crushing international sanctions.
In other recent developments:
Al-Sadr's aides said Monday the cleric had called for his fighters to stop attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces and was considering joining the political process.
Al-Sadr has backed off other commitments in the past, but a truce would be a major victory for Allawi by removing a serious insurgency and potentially bringing many of the Shiite cleric's followers into the effort to build a peaceful democracy.
Also Monday, there were conflicting reports on Iraq's vital oil exports. Iraqi oil officials and the governor of Basra state said exports were shut down after a rash of pipeline attacks. However, world oil prices decreased as traders said other reports suggested some oil was still flowing. At the New York Mercantile Exchange, October contracts for light sweet crude fell 90 cents a barrel to $42.28 — well below peaks above $48 a barrel in mid-August.
Sheik Ali Smeisim, a political adviser to al-Sadr, announced the cease-fire decision in Najaf, calling on the cleric's Mahdi Army militiamen to "stop firing until the announcement of the political program adopted by the Sadrist movement."
He also urged U.S. and Iraqi troops to move out of the center of Iraqi cities, although that did not appear to be a condition for the unilateral cease-fire. Asked if the truce would take effect immediately, Smeisim said, "I hope so."
A peace deal mediated by Iraq's top Shiite religious leader ended the fighting in Najaf last week, but clashes have continued elsewhere. Al-Sadr's aides and Iraqi government officials met in Baghdad on Monday to try to negotiate an end to violence that has wracked the capital's Sadr City slum.
The government has repeatedly called on al-Sadr to disband the Mahdi Army and join politics. His aides didn't say whether he was considering dissolving the militia, but for the first time they said he was preparing to enter politics.
"This latest initiative shows that we want stability and security in this country by ending all confrontation in all parts of Iraq," said Sheik Raed al-Khadami, an al-Sadr spokesman in Baghdad. "Al-Sadr's office in Najaf will issue a call within the next two days to join the political process."
That would help bring legitimacy to elections scheduled for January, but Allawi's government also still faces a 16-month-old insurgency among Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority, which provided the backbone of Saddam Hussein's regime.
In an interview Monday with Al-Arabiya television, Iraq's national security adviser, Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie, reiterated that al-Sadr must disband his militia. "Building democracy in Iraq can not happen while armed militias exist in Iraq," he said.