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Archive for Thursday, December 21, 2006

Shiites to push for political solution

December 21, 2006

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— Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who heads a militia feared by Iraq's Sunnis, is considering a one-month unilateral cease-fire and may push his followers to rejoin the political process after a three-week boycott, officials close to him said Wednesday.

The issue is expected to come up at a meeting today in the holy city of Najaf between al-Sadr and a delegation representing the seven Shiite groups that form the largest bloc in Iraq's parliament, the Shiite officials said on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the talks.

In perhaps an even more important session, the delegation will also sit down with the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Officials from several factions confirmed the planned trip to Najaf.

The visit is intended to allow the Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, to work out some of Iraq's biggest political obstacles in front of al-Sistani, and to pressure al-Sadr to rein in his fighters and rejoin politics - or face isolation, participants said.

Until the walkout, al-Sadr's faction had been an integral part of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's governing coalition. Cabinet ministers and legislators who belong to al-Sadr's movement called the boycott after al-Maliki met with President Bush in Jordan three weeks ago. Al-Sadr's militia and its offshoots have been increasingly blamed for sectarian attacks.

As violence rages across Baghdad and much of Iraq, a new coalition taking shape among Shiites, Kurds and one Sunni party is seen as a last-ditch effort to form a government across sectarian divisions that have split the country. While al-Sadr's movement would not be part of this coalition, such an alliance - which reportedly is supported by the Bush administration - might pressure the radical cleric to soften his stance.

In today's meeting, the group wants to assure al-Sistani that the new coalition would not break apart the Shiite bloc, said officials from several Shiite parties. Potential members of the coalition said they have been negotiating for two weeks, and now want the blessing of al-Sistani, whose word many Shiites consider binding.

The movement is backed by the U.S. government, said Sami al-Askari, a member of the Dawa party and an adviser to al-Maliki.

"I met the American ambassador in Baghdad and he named this front the 'front of the moderates,' and they (the Americans) support it," al-Askari said.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad could not comment on the ambassador's meeting or his position on the possible coalition deal.

After meeting al-Sistani, the delegation will visit al-Sadr to try to persuade him to tell his followers to return to politics, and to assure him that the new coalition - still being completed - will not isolate his movement, said officials from several factions, including al-Sadr's movement.

"Tomorrow we will visit Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr, though the (coalition) front has not yet been formed, due to the demands of the Iraqi Islamic Party," al-Askari said.

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