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British officials hold talks with Mahdi army

Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian

November 17, 2007

The British commander in southern Iraq confirmed yesterday that UK officials have been holding talks with supporters of the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army in the hope they would be drawn into the political process.

Major General Graham Binns said the security situation in Basra province - to be handed over to Iraqi forces next month - was improving and attacks against British and Iraqi forces had fallen by 90% since British troops withdrew from their last base in the centre of the city in September.

Confirming the talks with the Mahdi army, first reported in the Guardian, Binns said: "We may get to the point where the main Sadrist strain will support the Iraqi security forces - that's the goal."

He said "not everyone" in the militia was behind the talks because for some "the offer of money to attack us is still too tempting." But, he said the Badr brigade - the main rival to the Mahdi army - had been too weak to mount a challenge.

"The Sadrist militia is all powerful here - more powerful than Badr. If Badr was allowed to take on [the Mahdi army] in Basra, they'd lose pretty quickly," he said. The Badr brigade is a rival militia connected to Iraq's biggest Shia party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

British officials last night were keen to emphasise that the talks with the militia were being held with the full support and, at times, participation of Major General Abdul Jalil Khalaff and General Mohan, two senior Iraqi officers sent by Baghdad to take over responsibility for the security of Basra province from the British. The talks have been accompanied by the release, by British forces, of Mahdi army fighters detained in connection with attacks on British troops.

Khalaff told the BBC this week that 42 women had been killed in Basra between July and September as part of a campaign by religious extremists elements carrying out a campaign of violence and intimidation against women.


:: Article nr. 38296 sent on 17-nov-2007 02:16 ECT

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Link: www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,,2212502,00.html



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