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Maliki Meets Sistani.

In a bid to shore up his government in the face of US doubts and unrelenting sectarian violence, PM Nuri al-Maliki on Oct. 18 met with Iraq's most powerful Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. He also met separately with Muqtada al-Sadr, a young anti-US mullah whose Jaysh al-Mahdi militia has been in the lead among Shi'ite death squads causing the violent escalation in Baghdad.

The meetings, which occurred in private in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, came as Maliki was under intense pressure from US officials and Iraqi leaders impatient with his failure to take aggressive steps to end the sectarian strife, including the dismantling of militias tied to the country's main Shi'ite political parties. Maliki's main focus was on how to handle the militias.

At the crux of Maliki's problem lies Sadr and his Jaysh al-Mahdi. US commanders have been pressing Iraqi officials to send an all-out assault against Jaysh al-Mahdi strongholds; but Maliki, who relies on Sadr for political backing, has resisted.

These tensions played out Oct. 18 when Maliki's government demanded that the US military release a senior aide to Sadr, Shaikh Mazen al-Sa'di, captured on Oct. 17 on suspicion of attacking American forces and of directing kidnappings, killings and torture of Sunni Arabs and Shi'ites.

Maliki took office in May, and since then senior US officials have repeatedly said the first six months of his administration would be crucial. During a telephone call with Bush on Oct. 16, Maliki disclosed that this timeline was weighing on his mind and asked about rumours that the US would replace him soon if they were unsatisfied with his progress. Bush reassured Maliki that he had American support.

At a news conference in Najaf, after his meeting with Sistani, Maliki behaved like a man vindicated. The Iraqi people, he said, "are the only ones who can vote yes to continue or no to stop this government". He added that his government would be subjected to its own review, not an American one.

Sadr, whose militia twice battled the US military in protracted uprisings in 2004, criticised American policy toward Iraq, saying: "The Iraqi government has the right to act and no one has the right to intervene, not the Americans or any other country". But in recent days, top officials in Maliki's government have been taking steps which seem to be responses to demands for changes at the highest levels of government.

On Oct. 17, the Maliki government, which has been under pressure to purge Iraq's security forces of militia and sectarian influence, announced that it had removed the two most senior police commanders from their posts the day before. And in recent days, the government formed a special committee with a mandate to study and overhaul its security agencies.

Maliki's visit to Sistani underscored the influence of the spiritual leader. During the news, the PM said he had paid the ayatollah a visit "so that the security and political situation can be stabilised, allowing the government to turn its attention to reconstruction.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Strategic Balance in the Middle East
Date:Oct 23, 2006
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