Iraq's top Shiite cleric calls for disarming militias

Posted in Iraq | 29-Apr-06 | Source: The Daily Star (Lebanon Edition)

At least 20 killed in violence across country

Iraq's Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani called Thursday for the next administration to dismantle militias and offered the premier-designate a broad road map for the formation of a national unity government. At least 20 people were killed across Iraq Thursday - including the sister of a prominent Sunni leader - as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld renewed calls for democracy in Iraq.

The revered Sistani made his remarks in talks with Premier-designate Nuri al-Maliki, who later met the unpredictable, but powerful Moqtada al-Sadr.

In the last year, Sistani has watched Shiite militias take up arms against Sunnis in defiance of his repeated warnings against seeking revenge for rebel attacks.

"Weapons must be in the hands of government security forces that should not be tied to political parties but to the nation," Sistani said after talks with Maliki at the cleric's residence in Najaf.

Maliki reiterated his call for the militias to be disarmed after taking a similar stance during talks with Rice and Rumsfeld.

Outlining a broad plan for effective governance, Sistani told Maliki that the government's first task "is fighting insecurity and putting an end to the terrorist acts that threaten innocents with death and kidnapping."

The cleric added that the new Cabinet needed "capable and honest people who have a good reputation and care about national interests, not personal, religious or sectarian interests."

Sistani said special attention needed to be paid to fighting corruption and getting infrastructure, like water and electricity, "back up and running."

Maliki was appointed premier-designate last Saturday after his Shiite United Iraqi Alliance dropped Ibrahim al-Jaafari as its candidate for the top government job.

Maliki has pledged to fill the key posts of interior and defense ministers with non-sectarian appointees.

Maliki has 30 days from last Saturday to present his Cabinet to Parliament for approval.

"The dialogue is still ongoing with the different parties from which the government will be formed, including on the important ministries," Maliki said after the talks. "God willing, it will be settled next week."

At a joint new conference with Maliki, Sadr said that the new government's first duty was to ensure Iraq's stability and independence, including a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops.

At the end of their trip - which Sadr branded as a "shocking intervention in Iraqi affairs" - Rice and Rumsfeld called on Iraqi leaders to usher democracy in the country.

"This is Iraq's time and the time for Iraq's newly elected leaders to take on these responsibilities and to represent the desires and the aspirations of the Iraqi people who voted in large numbers, who faced down terrorists in order to vote and express themselves," Rice said before flying out of Baghdad.

As Maliki works toward building a government to avert civil war, gunmen killed a sister of one of the newly appointed vice-presidents on Thursday, the latest high level assassination.

Meysoun al-Hashemi, sister of Sunni Vice-President Tareq al -Hashemi, was gunned down in her car in Baghdad. Hashemi's brother was killed on April 13.

In the day's bloodiest attack, six Iraqi Army soldiers were killed when gunmen ambushed a military checkpoint, 40 kilometers north of Baqouba, a security source said, adding four insurgents were also killed in the attack.

Two earlier attacks in the area targeted police checkpoints, killing a total of eight people. In one of them, insurgents approached a checkpoint posing as a wedding party in a convoy of vehicles.

In further violence, three Italian soldiers and a Romanian soldier were killed in a roadside bombing in the town of Nassiriyya.

Italy's ANSA news agency quoting Italian intelligence services said that the killings of the four soldiers were claimed by Imam Hussein Brigade, a militant group belonging to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al-Qaeda's front man in Iraq. - Agencies