THOMAS WAGNER BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP)
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki today called on lawmakers and Cabinet ministers loyal to an anti-American cleric to end their boycott of the government in response to his summit with President Bush. “I hope they reconsider their decision because it doesn’t constitute a positive development in the political process,” al- Maliki said at a news conference on his return to Baghdad from a two-day visit to neighboring Jordan, where he met with Bush and King Abdullah II. The 30 lawmakers and five Cabinet ministers loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr had threatened to quit the government and parliament if al-Maliki went ahead with the summit, which was aimed at halting Iraq’s escalating sectarian violence and paving the way for a reduction of U.S. troops. But by downgrading their protest to a suspension of membership, they left open a return to their jobs. A senior Sadrist legislator, Baha al- Aaraji, said al-Sadr supporters would end their boycott when there is an increase in what he termed well-trained Iraqi security forces and the government ends the chronic shortages of basic services like electricity and fuel. The Sadrists were crucial to al- Maliki’s election earlier this year, which is reflected in his reluctance to comply with repeated U.S. demands to disband the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia run by al-Sadr and blamed for much of the sectarian violence tearing Iraq apart. “Political partnership means commitment,” al-Maliki said, addressing his Sadrist allies, whom he advised to use constitutional channels to air their grievances. Al-Maliki pledged again today to act against illegal armed groups, but he did not name the Mahdi Army or cite specific actions. He said he has reassured Bush in their meeting of “the government’s resolve to impose the government’s authority, bring stability, hold to account outlaws and limit the possession of arms to the hands of the government.” Al-Maliki also said he was determined to ensure that Iraq’s security forces have the weapons and the training needed for them to be more capable on the battlefield. “We mean by arming, the weapons fit to fight the terrorists ... the light and effective weapons, vehicles, armor vehicles and helicopters that will be active in the next phase in the fight against the terrorists,” he said. One of the main goals of the U.S. coalition is to train enough Iraqi soldiers and police to take over its security responsibilities, especially in particularly violent areas such as western Iraq, where al-Qaida in Iraq is powerful, and Baghdad, where fighting between Sunni militants and Shiite militias is escalating. Bush said the U.S. would speed a turnover of security responsibility to Iraqi forces but assured al-Maliki that Washington is not looking for a “graceful exit” from a war well into its fourth violent year. In the latest bloodshed, the U.S. military said Iraqi forces found 28 bodies Wednesday in what may be a mass grave south of the city of Baqouba. For about a week, heavy fighting between Iraqi police and Sunni insurgents has Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. In the southern city of Basra, gunmen killed Nasir Gatami, the deputy of the local Sunni Endowment chapter, and three of his bodyguards in an attack on their two-car convoy, police said. The Endowment, which confirmed the attack, was created to care for Sunni mosques across Iraq. In the past four months, 23 of its employees have been kidnapped in Baghdad, with suspicion focused on Shiite militias. The military also said that a U. S. soldier was killed during combat in Baghdad on Wednesday, raising to at least 2,884 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the beginning of the war. The Sadrist boycott doesn’t affect top ministries such as foreign, defense, oil, finance, interior, justice or trade. The boycotting Shiite Cabinet members include the ministers of agriculture, health, transport and public works. Liwa Smeism, one of the boycotting Cabinet ministers, said the Shiite boycott wouldn’t stop all work at government offices such as his Ministry of State of Tourism and Archaeological Affairs. “We are protesting, not closing the ministries. The undersecretaries and other officials are running them. If my decision is needed at my ministry, my staff can call me up at home,” he said in a telephone interview. Smeism said the participating ministers were “suspending our participation in the Cabinet meetings until we get new directions from our leaders of the boycott.” Today’s meetings were supposed to be Bush’s second set of strategy sessions in the Jordanian capital. But the first meeting between Bush and al- Maliki, scheduled for Wednesday night along with Jordan’s king, was scrubbed. Accounts varied as to why, but it followed the leak of a classified White House memo critical of al-Maliki and a boycott of the Iraqi leader’s government in Baghdad. Both al-Aaraji and Smeism declined to comment on the decision by al-Maliki to back out of Wednesday night’s meeting.