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Shiites resist isolating Sadr

Special to The Times

One of Iraq’s most influential Shiite clerics rejected a U.S.-backed proposal to isolate Shiite extremists in the national government, saying the country should govern itself with the help of anti-U.S. firebrand Muqtada Sadr, according to politicians who spoke with the cleric Saturday.

Shiite politicians met with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in this Shiite holy city, and then said they had thrown their support behind Sadr, who demands a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq rather than the temporary increase under consideration in Washington.

“The Sadr movement is part of Iraqi affairs,” said Haider Abadi, a leader of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party. “We won’t allow others to interfere to weaken any Iraqi political movement.”

Ali Adeeb, another member of the Dawa Party, said Shiite leaders, including the prime minister, would resist U.S. efforts to sideline Sadr and his Al Mahdi army.

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“The Iraqi government decides what it thinks is necessary for the interest of the political process,” he said, adding that Sadr’s participation was essential to improve Iraq’s political and security problems. Sadr controls several seats in the Iraqi Cabinet and about 30 seats in parliament, but his loyalists have suspended their participation until fellow Shiite politicians join his call for an immediate U.S. withdrawal.

The expressions of support for Sadr are likely to complicate the Bush administration’s efforts to forge a new policy on Iraq. They came as President Bush met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and new Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who had just returned to the U.S. from a trip to Baghdad.

The U.S. recently labeled Sadr’s militia the top terrorist threat in Iraq. It was involved in clashes with police Friday and Saturday in the southern city of Samawah in which police said five people were killed. Shiite moderates have been trying to build a new coalition with Kurds and Sunni Arabs that would sideline Sadr.

Military officials say Bush’s plan probably will include a “surge” of thousands of troops in addition to the 140,000 already here. Many Iraqis grudgingly acknowledge that, while they want the Americans to leave, they trust U.S. troops more than they do the Iraqi security forces, which have been accused of corruption and incompetence.

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But Sadr, whose militia has repeatedly clashed with U.S. troops, vehemently opposes their presence.

Abadi said Sistani maintains Iraqis know how best to govern their emerging state. Abadi said the cleric told him, “Iraqis must get their sovereignty as soon as possible. No Iraqis want foreign troops on his land for a long period. Therefore, the government should be strengthened.”

Shiite politicians often meet with Sistani and spin his words to fit their political agendas. Most of those at the meeting with Sistani on Saturday were members of the Dawa Party, which is close to the Sadr bloc. After meeting Sistani, they went to see Sadr at his home nearby.

An official from a rival party in the Shiite coalition, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said members had been trying to form a coalition with Dawa, the Iraqi Islamic Party and two Kurdish parties with the hope of strengthening the government rather than isolating Sadr.

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“This is just a rumor that we wanted to oust the Sadrists,” said Ridha Jawad Taqi, a Supreme Council spokesman who said party leaders were invited to Saturday’s meeting but didn’t attend and were unaware of the outcome.

Haitham Husseini, another Supreme Council spokesman, said party members will welcome the Sadr loyalists back into the government.

Abadi said negotiations still were underway, but that Sadr’s supporters “are on their way back to the government.”

In Samawah, about 150 miles south of Baghdad, Sadr supporters who had previously agreed to disarm were fighting police Saturday. After militia members killed two police related to a local tribe, tribesmen joined the fight, sending gunmen into the streets and occupying the Sadr party office, police and tribesmen said.

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“Everyone who is related to this bureau or the Mahdi army is a target for us and he might be killed,” said Mohammed Hasan, an Ahl Ziad tribesman, who vowed revenge on the militia.

Police in southern Iraq are generally loyal to the Supreme Council, which is engaged in a bitter, years-long feud with the Sadr loyalists. Samawah resident Jamal Abid Oun was hoping for a peaceful resolution.

“There are ongoing talks between the Ahl Ziad tribe and the Sadr bureau aiming at ending this sedition,” he said. “God willing, they will come out with something that saves the blood of people.”

Other parts of Iraq were rife with violence Saturday.

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In Baghdad, two Iraqi soldiers were killed and five injured when their convoy hit a roadside bomb downtown, police said. Authorities recovered 47 bodies in the 24-hour period that ended Saturday, according to the Interior Ministry. All had been shot and most blindfolded, showing signs of torture, police said.

At least 13 people died by violence Saturday across Iraq.

Authorities in the southern city of Diwaniya discovered the body of a military intelligence official kidnapped two days ago. A police officer and a former member of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party were also shot dead. Roadside bombs south of Baghdad and near the northern city of Kirkuk killed three.

In the southern city of Amarah, gunmen wearing police uniforms and driving a police car kidnapped a doctor. Police said the car was not theirs.

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Hennessy-Fiske reported from Baghdad and special correspondent Fakhrildeen from Najaf. Special correspondents in Amarah, Baghdad, Hillah, Kirkuk and Samawah contributed to this report.


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