Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Al-Maliki seeks Sistani's advice on filling empty ministerial posts

(Reuters) - Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki met on Wednesday with the reclusive leader of Iraq's Shi'ite majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to discuss a government crisis in which nearly half his cabinet has quit. Sistani is the sponsor of the prime minister's ruling United Alliance and rarely leaves his home in the holy Shi'ite city of Najaf in southern Iraq.
Speaking after the meeting, Maliki told reporters he had come to Najaf to seek Sistani's advice on filling empty ministerial posts and to get his thoughts on the possibility of reforming the government. "I discussed with him the case of the government. I asked his help in forming a government and nominating new ministers, or if there is the possibility to form a new government based on technocrats," he said.
Maliki did not say how Sistani responded, and the cleric's office declined to comment. One of the biggest blocs in the United Alliance, the movement of fiery Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, pulled out of the government in April in protest at Maliki's refusal to set a timetable for a U.S. troop timetable.
The biggest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament, the Accordance Front, has also pulled out its ministers, accusing Maliki of sectarianism. The walkouts have dealt a blow to efforts to bridge the deep divide between Iraq's Shi'ite and Sunni Arab communities and reach agreement on laws seen by Washington as vital to fostering national reconciliation.
Amid calls by some Democrats in Washington for his ouster, Maliki is under growing pressure to show political progress to match the military gains that have been made in certain areas. Maliki also said he was considering a proposal to declare Iraq's holy cities, which are home to some of the most important shrines in Shi'ite Islam, weapons-free zones, with only the military entitled to be armed.
"I am considering that holy shrines and sacred cities be peaceful places and disarmed of weapons and under the protection of the Iraqi army," Maliki said, without elaborating. The proposal follows fierce fighting near the Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas shrines in Kerbala last week in which dozens of people were killed. The fighting disrupted a major religious festival and forced hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to flee. The gun battles appeared to involve Sadr's Mehdi Army militia and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, a rival Shi'ite faction whose armed wing controls police in much of the south.

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