WASHINGTON – Top U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus has met with representatives of Muqtada al-Sadr, once one of the top enemies fueling the insurgency against the elected Iraqi government, FOX News has confirmed.
The general has not met personally with al-Sadr, the military said, but the meetings come as the Pentagon is softening its approach to the firebrand Shiite leader who recently eased his hard-line stance with a ceasefire call last August.
Al-Sadr's aides have been quietly working with U.S. military officials to discuss security operations.
"Gen. Petraeus has not had any direct engagements or meetings with Muqtada al-Sadr. The command has indeed had direct engagements with some of his people that are within the organization. Mainly that has been via the Force Strategic Engagement Cell or FSEC as part of the overarching efforts to assist with reconciliation efforts," Petraeus spokesman Col. Steve Boylan said in a statement provided to FOX News.
First reported over the weekend in Newsweek, U.S. commanders said the pullback of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army has been a major factor in the decrease in Baghdad violence. They also said U.S. forces and Sadr's forces now have a common enemy: so-called "special groups" that once were aligned with Sadr but have splintered from the main organization.
Those groups, Newsweek said, are allegedly funded through Iran, and al-Sadr has formed a new unit to go after the special groups -- which are ignoring the ceasefire.
"We do applaud and welcome the efforts of Muqtada al-Sadr in his previous announcement of a ceasefire and what he is doing to try to bring those elements under control. We believe that what has happened (with respect to decreases in violence) can be attributed in part to those efforts.
"Those elements such as the special group, extremist elements, have in fact dishonored Sadr's pledge of honor to bring about the ceasefire and become part of the process to move forward," Boylan said.
Al-Sadr has taken himself out of the public eye since calling the ceasefire, and his whereabouts are unknown. Newsweek reported that he could be studying to fulfill aspirations of high religious office.
FOX News' Justin Fishel contributed to this report.