Fri, Dec 22, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Iraqi Shiite cleric mulling ceasefire

BLESSED Participants in the movement to cut a peace deal say they have the backing of the US, and the US would certainly like a successful outcome

AP , BAGHDAD

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

The issue was expected to come up at a meeting yesterday 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 Wednesday on condition of anonymity because of the secrecy of the talks.

Half the delegates traveled to Najaf on Wednesday night, and were gathered yesterday morning at the home of the country's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, an official in al-Sistani's office said on condition of anonymity because of political sensitivities. The others were traveling to Najaf yesterday, he said.

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.

Joint army-police checkpoints were erected at all entrances to Najaf yesterdau morning, a top police official and a representative from al-Sistani's office 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 US President George W. 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 yesterday's meeting, the group was 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 US 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 US] support it," al-Askari said.

However, two prominent figures in the proposed coalition went to Washington to meet Bush separately in the past three weeks: Tarek al-Hashemi of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party and Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, known as SCIRI. The US supports two other potential members, the Kurdish Democratic Party and President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

``The US wants to see an Iraq that is united, stable, democratic and prosperous. We will continue to work with the democratically elected government of Iraq to reach this goal by improving security, promoting national reconciliation and the rule of law and helping the Iraqis deliver essential services,'' US embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said.

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