|Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki waved to pilgrims yesterday during his visit to the shrine of Imam Hussein. Maliki also spoke of the need to move forward on political unification. (Mohammed Ameen/Reuters)|
Maliki hails reconciliation effort
Says next step is to drive out militant forces
BAGHDAD - Iraq's prime minister declared yesterday that national reconciliation was moving forward despite the embarrassing collapse of a deal to hold provincial elections and a warning of possible escalating Shi'ite feuds over the failure.
It was a day of charged rhetoric - heightened by a flurry of political drama.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is part of the nation's Shi'ite majority, spoke from one of the sect's holiest sites - the shrine of Imam Hussein, 50 miles south of Baghdad. The city is the centerpiece of Arbaeen, a commemoration that marks the end of the mourning period that follows the anniversary of Hussein's martyrdom in the seventh century. The holiday wound up yesterday.
A big, supportive crowd greeted Maliki. Some waved Iraqi flags as he gave a soaring assessment of national affairs in this war-weary country - tempered with an appeal to Shi'ites to continue participating in the political process.
"National reconciliation efforts have succeeded in Iraq and the Iraqis have once again become loving brothers," he said in a speech broadcast live on television. "We have ended the security instability and we have to chase Al Qaeda elements in other places such as Mosul, Diyala, and Kirkuk in order to finish the battle for good so that we can concentrate on the reconstruction phase."
The prime minister also acknowledged the need to move forward on political unification.
"I affirm the necessity of pushing the political process, boosting security and the economy, and combating corruption," he said. "We should be united and keep away from personal interests in order to face the greater challenges and achieve final victory."
One of the greatest challenges right now is resurrecting a deal on provincial elections that would find support among Iraq's three main groups: Shi'ites, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds. New elections are seen as step toward handing greater power to Iraq's varied regions and giving Sunnis a stronger political voice. Its collapse Wednesday dashed hopes both in Baghdad and Washington.
The Bush administration backed it as one of 18 benchmarks to promote reconciliation.
Most of the benchmarks remain unmet. But the US view is that - if compromises can ultimately be reached - the deals would stabilize Iraq and ultimately allow America to withdraw its troops.
Parliament approved the elections measure in a bundle with two others, the budget and a key amnesty bill, and then broke for a five-week vacation.
The budget and amnesty bills were then approved by the three-member presidential council, but the provincial law was rejected. The deal apparently fell apart because of a power struggle among Shi'ites, pitting the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council - the largest Shi'ite bloc and the party of Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi - against followers of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who controls the powerful Mahdi Army militia.
"We are suffering a new wave aimed at the destruction of a new Iraqi national law [that] could fracture the country's unity and replace it with laws based on sectarian and political motivations," Sadrist lawmaker Nassar al-Rubaie said.
He worried that Iraq was shifting from a period of sectarian violence to "a period of chaos and corruption."
The fate of the provincial election law is uncertain at best. Lawmakers do not return until March 18, and it took them weeks to strike a deal last time. A legal adviser to parliament said that a simple majority will be enough to pass the measure again, but it also must go back to the presidential council for final approval.
The streets of Karbala were clogged yesterday with pilgrims.
Aqil al-Khazali, the provincial governor of Karbala, estimated that the main procession in Karbala drew some 9 million pilgrims, including 80,000 foreigners. The US military has said 6 million pilgrims traveled in and out of the Karbala area for the holiday.
Religious festivals have a history of being targeted by insurgents, and the United States has blamed Sunni-led Al Qaeda in Iraq for a flurry of attacks on worshippers that killed at least 64 people over the past week as they made their way to Karbala.