Top Shiite cleric balks at plan for Iraq

Updated: 2006-12-24 11:25

Meanwhile, President Bush met with his new defense secretary Robert Gates at his presidential retreat in Camp David, Md., to discuss military options for Iraq including a proposal to send thousands more troops to the 140,000 already in Iraq to try to quell escalating violence, particularly in Baghdad.

The president is expect to announce a revamped Iraq strategy in a speech to the nation between New Year's Day and Jan. 23, when he gives his State of the Union address.

In Iraq, the focus was on politics. Several weeks ago, 30 Iraqi lawmakers and six Cabinet ministers who support al-Sadr launched a boycott of the government. They were protesting a meeting between the prime minister and President Bush.

Now the 275-member Iraqi parliament is in virtual paralysis.

On Saturday, the same Shiite delegation in Najaf that courted al-Sistani tried to persuade al-Sadr to bring his supporters back into government. Al-Sadr did not give a definite answer, according to some of those who met with him.

"He will give his final decision whether to rejoin the government and parliament after Eid al-Adha," Khaled al-Attiya, an independent who is parliament's deputy speaker, said after the meeting. Iraq's Shiites will celebrate the holiday from Dec. 31 to Jan. 4.

Some of al-Sadr's aides had earlier said he would soon end his political boycott and call off attacks by his militia, at least temporarily.

But al-Sistani's rejection of the new coalition which would have excluded al-Sadr's supporters strengthened his hand.

Al-Sistani holds no political post and rarely emerges from his home and adjacent office. But his word is considered law by many Shiites.

Despite this, Shiite militants, including members of al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, have not heeded al-Sistani's appeals for peace in Iraq. Many Iraqis on both sides of the sectarian divide view militias as their only form of defense.

One of al-Sadr's key demands is a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

Without progress toward political reconciliation in Iraq, some observers say, the security situation in the country is likely to remain grim.

In violence on Saturday, an Iraqi military intelligence officer was killed in a drive-by shooting south of Baghdad, police said. Six civilians were killed when a mortar shell hit a house in Baqouba, north of the capital. U.S.-led forces raided a militant hide out in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, killing one person and detaining nine.


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