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Al-Maliki talks unity, cabinet reshuffle, acceptance of Baathists


dpa German Press Agency
Published: Saturday December 16, 2006

Baghdad- Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Saturday called on former army members to rejoin the Iraqi forces, extending a hand to Sunnis and even to Baathists in an aim to unite rival religious factions and to kick off a national-unity venture that is "inclusive of all Iraqis." The premier said that "now is the right time" for another reshuffle of his almost 7-month-old cabinet.

Since its appointment, al-Maliki's government has been facing criticism for the weighty security problems and raging sectarian infighting in a country almost edging on civil war.

Al-Maliki said that restructuring his cabinet to form a national- unity government should be "beyond (personal) loyalties, narrow- minded allegiances and should depend on worthiness and qualification - away from quotas, national and party ideologies."

The premier however did not disclose details on how this could be done without angering the already dissenting groups - each wanting a better share in country politics.

Al-Maliki also said that the security issue would now be completely handled by the government.

Al-Maliki's statements came as part of a speech during a national conference aiming at fighting widespread violence and amending a bill that relates to the involvement of Saddam's former loyalist Baathists in politics, but the troubles of Shiites and Sunnis topped the national reconciliation conference's agenda.

The two-day national conference includes some 200 delegations - representing different political blocs from different ethnic and religious backgrounds.

During the conference, al-Maliki said that "militias and armed coalitions" are endangering the political process.

He added that the former ruling Baath Party members who were not responsible for violence should be invited back to contribute more to politics.

Al-Maliki said that former army members who served during the ex- dictator Saddam's reign were welcome to rejoin the ranks of the Iraqi Army. He promised a key amendment in the law that relates to the involvement of Baathists in the military.

"We totally separate between the Baathists whose hands are stained by Iraqi blood and who committed atrocities against the Iraqi people, who still assassinate and spill blood, and the other group of Baathists (who are innocent of this)."

Concerning foreign policies, al-Maliki said that Iraq has succeeded in bolstering ties with neighbouring countries but stressed that "foreign intervention" is not accepted and should be refused by all Iraqi factions. The remark was understood to be referring to the reported Iranian intrusion in Iraq's internal affairs.

It is widely believed that Iranian forces are fuelling the sectarian strife in Iraq by supporting militias.

The Iraqi National Dialogue Front, a Sunni group that has 11 seats in parliament, refused to take part in the conference because their demand for the release a group of Sunni detainees was not met.

The front is part of a coalition of three groups called the Iraqi Accord Front which has 44 seats in parliament.

The Sadr bloc was also absent from the conference at which militia-led political groups were vehemently condemned.

Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr had urged his political bloc to shun the Iraqi government shortly after Maliki's meeting with US President George W Bush last November.

In addition to the Sadrists, other groups and ministers had also pulled out their support for al-Maliki's government in protest and have been boycotting the government ever since.

"The absence of the Sadr bloc and the Muslim Scholars Association from the conference will not affect the reconciliation project," Abbas al-Biaty, deputy of the United Iraqi Alliance which has 128 seats in parliament, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa shortly before the conference's first session began.

According to al-Biaty, firm "recommendations" were expected concerning allowing militants access to the political arena and relating to the entire "political structure."

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency