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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

Seeking to Shore Up Support, Maliki Meets With Iraqi Clerics

The prime minister confers with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Moqtada Sadr.

October 19, 2006|Saad Fakhrildeen and Borzou Daragahi | Special to The Times

NAJAF, Iraq — Prime Minister Nouri Maliki met with influential Shiite Muslim clerics in this city of seminaries and shrines Wednesday, seeking support for his beleaguered government.

Maliki conferred with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraqi Shiites' most revered cleric, and Moqtada Sadr, the radical leader of a political movement and militia considered a cause of Iraq's security woes. Both are key backers of Maliki's Shiite-dominated administration.

The visit came as Maliki faces rumors that the United States is seeking to replace him because of dissatisfaction with his attempts to pacify sectarian strife.

But Maliki, who received fresh assurances of support from President Bush on Monday, dismissed speculation that he was in any danger of being pushed aside. "The Iraqi government ... did not show up with the tanks," he told reporters. "It came by the will of the Iraqi people through the stations of democracy, elections and the constitution."

Maliki's handling of security, especially his seeming inability to rein in Shiite militias, has drawn suspicion from the country's Sunni Arab minority and has frustrated U.S. officials. The American military this week complied with Maliki's request to release a detained cleric who served in Sadr's anti-U.S. movement and is suspected of being a militia leader.

Maliki defended the release, saying the country was moving to find "political solutions" for the militia issue and to make certain "nobody is arrested unless he committed a real crime against Iraq and Iraqis."

With Sadr at his side during a second news appearance, Maliki also hinted that he was seeking ways to lessen the influence of militias such as Sadr's Al Mahdi army, which often polices Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad and southern cities. "We found a rejection of killing and holding weapons and support for the concept that the state provides security and protection for the citizens," he said.

Sadr called on Iraqis to avoid a sectarian "bloodbath," and warned the U.S. to stay out of Iraq's domestic affairs.

"Many of the Americans' interventions inside and outside Iraq have worsened the situation, whether in Lebanon, North Korea or other countries where security is worsening," he told reporters.

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daragahi@latimes.com

Special correspondent Fakhrildeen reported from Najaf and Times staff writer Daragahi from Baghdad.

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