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Iraq’s Maliki makes case for holding on to post

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, in his first interview with a Western media outlet since last month’s bitterly fought elections, vowed Saturday that Iraq’s Sunni Arabs would be major players in the next government, as he cast himself both as peacemaker and front-runner to lead the country.

The Shiite prime minister, who appeared confident and jovial during an hourlong interview at his palace office, also invited a secular bloc led by rival Iyad Allawi to join him in governing, despite an acrimonious postelection period that saw Maliki’s supporters label the Iraqiya slate a front for the late Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

Maliki, whose enemies have called him an avowedly sectarian leader, insisted that he would bring all major religious and ethnic components into the next government.

“We rejected the concept of sectarianism and built the state based on nationalism,” Maliki said. “For this reason, I make the invitation for the Iraqiya bloc to participate in the government.”

Supporters of Maliki and Allawi have engaged in a war of words since last month’s elections, sparking fears among Iraqis that the country could again unravel on sectarian lines.

Although Maliki won the most votes of any politician in the elections, his State of Law alliance finished a narrow second to Iraqiya in parliament seats. His confidence Saturday may have sprung from his belief that he is close to sealing a deal with the other main Shiite bloc to form a new government.

A spokesman for Iraqiya laughed Saturday night at Maliki’s outreach.

“I can tell you it seems a funny offer. We are the ones who should be forming the government, not the other way around,” said the spokesman, Maysoon Damluji.

Maliki emphasized that he wanted to reconcile Iraq’s religious and ethnic communities, scarred by decades of war.

He made it clear that, although the country had come a long way, Iraq had not yet overcome its communal tensions.

“We seek to end the sectarian or ethnic quotas,” he said. “We must continue working to achieve this goal.”

The prime minister portrayed himself as a referee among the different sects and ethnicities, still traumatized by Hussein’s rule.

“The Shiites demand big things, the Sunnis demand huge things, and likewise the Kurds do,” Maliki said. “No one should think they will get more than what they deserve in this country. Even the Shiites have to be convinced that just because you form the majority of people, this does not mean that you will rule the country alone.”

Since the elections, Maliki’s backers have alleged fraud and demanded a recount; Allawi has warned that any attempt to block him from trying to form the next government could spark chaos and violence in the country’s Sunni Arab provinces. The political landscape has also been shaken by a string of recent bombings and other violence in Baghdad.

Calling Allawi his “brother,” Maliki urged the former prime minister to refrain from provocative comments. “We do not use inflammatory dialogue whether against Iyad Allawi or his bloc, because they remain as political partners in this country. Also, they have to live up to their responsibility,” he said.

The prime minister said members of the rival groups had met, although the two leaders had yet to sit down together. He said that if he formed the next government, he would assign key positions to Sunnis in the Iraqiya bloc.

“The Iraqiya bloc has 75 or 74 from the Sunni component, and they will get their entitlement in the parliament, ministries, vice presidency and deputy prime ministership,” he said.

Maliki made light of Iraqiya’s claim of primacy, pointing to a Supreme Court opinion at the end of March that authorized the biggest coalition in parliament to form the government, not the single slate with the most seats.

“The happiness of the Iraqiya bloc was limited for only one week,” he said with a chuckle, referring to March 27, when election results were announced giving Iraqiya 91 seats to 89 for Maliki’s State of Law.

Maliki emphasized that even if his slate formed an alliance with the Shiite-led Iraqi National Alliance, he would keep trying to reach out to other communities.

The prime minister expects a court ruling soon on a request for a manual recount in parts of Baghdad and northern Iraq to address fraud allegations. He emphasized that he would accept the results, even if the judiciary rejects the request.

“We will be committed to anything according to the law. This is a positive aspect. When we have a dispute, we resolve it by legal means and not by power or violence, or hindering security,” Maliki said. He jokingly compared the Iraqi election to the situation in Florida in 2000 when Democrat Al Gore contested the presidential results showing George W. Bush the winner.

Despite his show of confidence, it is unclear whether Maliki will be able to stay on as prime minister. His Shiite rivals, particularly cleric Muqtada Sadr, remain hostile to him, and the Iraqi National Alliance is pushing its own candidates.

Although Maliki said he was ready to serve in any post, he argued that he should remain in his current job.

“I began the changes and reforms in political, security and economic matters,” he said. “The completion may require that the prime ministry remains as it is now.”

Maliki spoke with pride as someone who took on armed groups and helped end the civil war in 2006 and 2007, even as detractors criticize him now for the same consolidation of power that helped pull Iraq back from the brink.

“Our accomplishments were genuine,” he said. “When the Shiites used to kill the Sunnis and the Sunnis killed the Shiites, this phenomenon ended because of the national reconciliation.”

To critics who whisper that he remains a sectarian, Maliki points to his 2008 crackdown on the Shiite militia loyal to Sadr. “I was forced . . . to confront the Shiites, in order to persuade the Sunnis that this country also belongs to them,” Maliki said.

He recollected the dark days during his first year in office, in 2006, when he was a compromise candidate and had yet to establish himself as a force.

“The hardest time was when we were collecting the cadavers of people and decapitated bodies from our streets, when the number of bombings in Baghdad had reached 25 daily,” Maliki said. “The situation at that time for Iraq was either to exist or not; to exist if we triumphed, or not exist if they triumphed.”

ned.parker@latimes.com


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