Iraqi Shi'ite offers praise for Sunnis
Acknowledges their efforts in curbing violence
BAGHDAD - A top Shi'ite politician yesterday acknowledged the contribution of US-backed Sunni Arab groups to the decline in violence across Iraq and called for their use in the continuing fight against Al Qaeda.
Meanwhile, the US military reported the deaths of three soldiers - the first Americans killed in the new year.
Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim's praise for the role of the Sunni groups, many of which had fought US and Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated security forces before switching sides last year, runs contrary to the hard-line position recently taken by Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki's government.
The government said last month it will disband the groups, known as Awakening Councils in some regions and Concerned Local Citizens in others, after restive areas are calmed. It said it did not want them to be a separate military force and would not allow them to have any infrastructure, such as offices.
The Sunni militias, more than 70,000-strong, have been credited by US commanders as being instrumental in what they say is a nearly 60 percent reduction in violence in the last six months. It also was affected by the dispatch of additional US troops and a six-month cease-fire declared in August by anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his militia.
But Maliki's government has been deeply uneasy about the potential for the Sunni fighters - now better organized and armed - to switch sides again, posing a threat to stability and the Shi'ite domination that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime.
However, Hakim, head of parliament's largest bloc and the country's most powerful political party, was conciliatory in his comments yesterday, although his praise for the Sunni groups was moderate and he did not say whether their future role should be permanent.
Noting the decline in violence, he said the credit should go to the role played by the groups, adding: "We still believe in the necessity of continuing with this strategy."
"Today, we are witnessing the decline of terrorism and the progress of reconciliation on the popular level with Sunni-Shi'ite solidarity," he said, alluding to the government's perceived failure to achieve political reconciliation between Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish groups.
Hakim, who was diagnosed with cancer last year but has been in relatively good health after chemotherapy in Iran, spoke to supporters in the holy city of Najaf.
He has long called for the use of "popular" forces in the fight against insurgents, but these calls were generally understood to mean giving Shi'ite militias a free rein in taking on the Sunni insurgents, many of whom have now switched allegiances and are fighting alongside US and Iraqi forces.
He said the recent security successes were "in some part" based on the strategy he has long advocated. Still, his call for the continued use of the Sunni groups appeared designed to limit the damage caused by the government's hard-line stance on the morale of the Sunni fighters or its likely impact on their loyalty to the anti-Al Qaeda in Iraq cause.
Some of the Sunni groups have said they wanted a security role beyond their localities, while others have made no secret of their political ambitions.
Hakim's take on the Sunni groups was not the only hint of his displeasure with the performance of the 19-month-old Maliki government, of which Hakim's Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, is a major partner.
He subtly admonished the government for not doing enough to improve the lot of the poor or fight widespread corruption in government.
"The government must look for expertise and competence when it fills official posts," he said.
Faaq Zeidan, the chief judge of a court that tries corruption cases, offered a view into the scope of Iraq's corruption. He said 1,759 cases were referred to his court last year, and that police have failed to act on 350 arrest warrants it issued because of negligence or lack of resources.
Zeidan, addressing a government-sponsored conference on corruption, said some ministries were not helpful with the pursuit of suspects.
Hakim also called on the government to speed up the reconstruction of a major Shi'ite shrine bombed in 2006 and 2007.
The government has repeatedly said it was determined to rebuild the shrine, but there has been little progress since the second bombing brought down the shrine's two minarets in June.
Hakim also criticized the government for not doing more to ensure the safe return of Iraqis displaced by the wave of sectarian cleansing that followed the February 2006 bombing of the shrine in Samarra north of Baghdad.
He also appeared to place the blame on the Shi'ite Maliki for not resolving differences with Sunni and Shi'ite political groups that had withdrawn from his government last year or filling up the Cabinet posts made vacant by their pullout.