BAGHDAD, Iraq – Officials close to the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said Thursday he has agreed to allow his supporters to rejoin the Iraqi government after a three-week boycott protesting the prime minister's meeting with President Bush.
Shiites from the Iraqi parliament's largest bloc met Thursday in the holy city of Najaf as part of a plan to persuade al-Sadr to rejoin the political process and rein in his militia, which is blamed for much of Iraq's sectarian violence.
Delegates from the seven Shiite parties discussed the country's predicament in front of their most revered cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose word is considered binding by many Shiites.
They sought al-Sistani's blessing for a governing coalition taking shape among Shiites, Kurds and one Sunni party — seen as a last-ditch effort at rare cooperation across the sectarian divide. Though al-Sistani will likely approve the deal, he fears the coalition could weaken the Shiite bloc, officials close to him said on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak to the press about their leader's concerns.
The coalition, though not yet finalized, could govern Iraq more efficiently than that of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been criticized for his ties to al-Sadr. Al-Sadr's loyalists walked out of their positions in parliament and the Cabinet after al-Maliki met Bush in Jordan.
The Shiite politicians were in touch with al-Sadr's aides, and would meet the firebrand cleric himself Friday or Saturday.
"Within two days, the al-Sadr movement will return to the government and parliament," said Abdul Karim al-Anizi, a prominent Shiite lawmaker from the Dawa faction.
Two figures in al-Sadr's movement — an aide to the cleric and a member of Iraq's parliament — also said the cleric had agreed to allow his followers to rejoin the government. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the talks.
"We will rejoin the government and the parliament very soon," the parliament member said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of ongoing meetings. "We got some guarantees during our meeting today," he added.
On Thursday, al-Sadr's loyalists met with members of the Shiite bloc and laid out their demands for returning to the government, the lawmaker said.
"Our demands are to hand over the security file and not allow any regional interference in Iraqi affairs," he said. The Sadrists planned to issue a statement on Saturday, he said.
The reference appeared to be a demand that U.S. forces cede control of security to the Iraqi government. American forces are already implementing a plan to give more responsibility to Iraqi troops, but doubts remain about whether Iraqi security forces can keep order anytime soon.
Al-Sadr's boycott has undercut al-Maliki's government and prevented the passage of legislation. During that time, other Shiite factions have teamed with Kurds and one Sunni party to negotiate the new governing coalition. The deal would exclude al-Sadr, but participants sought to reassure him that it would not sideline his influence, officials close to them said.
American officials were also considering broad changes to Iraq policy, including a possible short-term surge in U.S. troop numbers.
After meeting Iraqi leaders, Defense Secretary Gates said discussions focused "mainly on the overall approach, including the possibility of some additional assistance." But he was vague about the type of assistance discussed, and said no specific numbers of extra troops were discussed.
President Bush is considering whether to quickly send thousands of additional U.S. troops to the country. There are 140,000 American troops already in Iraq.
Gates, on his second day in Iraq and fourth day in the top defense job, chatted over breakfast with U.S. soldiers, many of whom said they supported the idea of more troops.
"With more presence on the ground, more troops might hold them off long enough to where we can get the Iraqi Army trained up," Spc. Jason T. Green of the 1st Infantry Division told Gates.
The U.S. military said Thursday that a Marine assigned to 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division died Wednesday in Anbar, the province west of Baghdad where insurgents are strong. A soldier assigned to Regimental Combat Team 7 died there on Tuesday.
A roadside bomb killed an American soldier Wednesday and wounded three others south of the Iraqi capital, the military said.
At least 2,959 American troops have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
On Thursday, a suicide bomber killed 15 people and wounded 15 others in a crowd of police volunteers in eastern Baghdad, Iraqi police and the U.S. military said. The dead included three police officers and 12 recruits. Bodies were strewn on gurneys and on the ground outside a hospital for hours, covered in blue sheeting as commuters passed by.
Officials also announced the murder of Iraq's Olympic cycling coach, killed after gunmen kidnapped him from his home. Family members identified the body of 48-year-old Mahoud Ahmed Fulayih at the central morgue in the capital on Monday, two days after he was abducted, said Hussein al-Amidi, the acting secretary general of Iraq's National Olympic Committee.