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Maliki Rejects Shiite Bloc's Calls to Cancel U.S. Visit

Backers of Iraq's leader say he has pressing issues that supersede efforts to protest war in Lebanon.

July 23, 2006|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Lawmakers from Iraq's main Shiite Muslim coalition urged Prime Minister Nouri Maliki on Saturday to cancel his trip to the United States to protest Washington's support for Israel's military actions in Lebanon.

But Maliki, speaking at a news conference, said he would proceed with his long-planned visit, which includes meetings with President Bush and other U.S. officials. He said that after he arrives July 25, he will press for an end to "Israeli aggression" against Lebanon.

"The hostile acts against Lebanon affect the region," Maliki said. "We are not removed from this issue. We will speak with the United Nations and the American government in order to accelerate the cease-fire and to apply international resolutions."

Still, some parties within the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition of Shiite political parties, have called on him to cancel the trip.

"The United States along with its allies gave the green light for Israeli troops to commit these crimes," said Sheik Sabah Saadi, a lawmaker who belongs to Al Fadila al Islamiya, one of the main parties in the Shiite bloc. "Canceling the trip is support for the Lebanese people, who are suffering very much from the Israeli attacks."

Followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr marched Friday, wielding assault rifles and vowing to support Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. The capture of two Israeli soldiers by guerrillas of the Shiite militant movement sparked the latest fighting in Lebanon.

Many Iraqi Shiites look to Nasrallah as a symbol of Arab defiance of Israel and growing Shiite regional clout. Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party, Nasrallah's Hezbollah and other Shiite fundamentalist groups throughout the Middle East share roots in the shrines and seminary cities of Iraq and Iran.

But Maliki must tread carefully. His government depends on the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to provide security in the face of a Sunni Arab-led insurgency and growing sectarian warfare.

Some Shiite strategists worry that a visit to Washington will fuel perceptions that Maliki is throwing in his lot with the Americans. Many say the perception that former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi was too close to the Americans hurt his election chances in 2005.

Maliki's more moderate supporters within the Shiite coalition said the prime minister must place Iraq's immediate interests, which include urgent security and economic matters to be taken up in Washington, before the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"The prime minister knows there will be criticism," said Sheik Jalaluddin Saghir, a cleric and lawmaker from the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a party in the Shiite coalition. "But we have special circumstances in Iraq that will not let us delay this visit."

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