Archive for Saturday, August 18, 2007

Prime minister tells Sunnis to unite

August 18, 2007

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— Iraq's Shiite prime minister carried an appeal for unity to Saddam Hussein's hometown Friday and told Sunni tribal chieftains that all Iraqis must join to crush al-Qaida in Iraq and extremist Shiite militias "to save our coming generations."

Nouri al-Maliki's bold sojourn into Tikrit - a city once pampered by Saddam, its favorite son - underlined the prime minister's determination to save his paralyzed government from collapse and prevent further disillusionment in Washington as voices grow for a troop withdrawal plan.

The sharp alteration in the government's political course - a willingness to travel to the belly of the Sunni insurgency and talk with former enemies - suggested a new flexibility from the hard-line religious Shiites who hold considerable influence over al-Maliki's views.

It also pointed to an apparent shift in military and political attention to northern Iraq as extremists seek new bases after being driven from Baghdad and strongholds in central Iraq by U.S.-led offensives.

"There is more uniting us than dividing us," al-Maliki told sheiks in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad. "We do not want to allow al-Qaida and the militias to exist for our coming generations. Fighting terrorism gives us a way to unite."

Al-Maliki's turnaround has been startling, given accusations of a bias in favor of his Shiite sect.

He owed his premiership to the backing of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, nominal head of the Mahdi Army militia that has cleared entire mixed Baghdad neighborhoods of Sunni residents.

Throughout his first year in office, al-Maliki sought to protect the fighters from U.S. raids on their Sadr City stronghold in eastern Baghdad. He ended these safeguards this spring after al-Sadr loyalists quit the Cabinet because al-Maliki refused to set a timetable for an American withdrawal.

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