Iraqi prime minister lectures against sectarianism
By SAMEER N. YACOUB,Associated Press Writer AP - Monday, January 26
BAGHDAD - Iraq's prime minister on Sunday blamed sectarianism for destroying the country, as he tried to tap into a backlash against religious parties before next weekend's nationwide provincial elections.
Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has been delivering numerous speeches in the days leading up to next Saturday's provincial elections in a thinly veiled effort to rally support for the candidates running under the umbrella group that includes his Dawa party.
"Sectarianism is behind the destruction of the country," al-Maliki told academics and sportsmen at a forum in Baghdad. "It is natural that we have different views, but we are all representing a unified Iraq that is not ready for division."
He appeared to be distancing himself from the major religious parties, particularly his governmental ally the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, after years of brutal violence between Shiites and Sunnis.
He told the forum that sectarianism is a "rotten thing" and Iraqis must focus on rebuilding efforts.
Al-Maliki isn't running, but his pictures have been plastered on campaign posters throughout Iraq, and he has campaigned extensively as he seeks to solidify his power base before national parliamentary elections later this year.
For years, al-Maliki himself had a reputation as a hard-line Shiite nationalist. But there are signs the public, especially in Baghdad and other major cities, has grown weary of the religious parties that have dominated national politics since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Al-Maliki's criticism of sectarian politics appeared to be an effort to tap into public discontent against parties run by clerics, such as the Supreme Council.
The prime minister also favors centralized rule and opposes a bid by the council, the country's biggest Shiite party, to establish a self-ruled region in the Shiite south modeled on the autonomous Kurdish administration in the north.
"The constitution has not called for the division of the country, but the people who have the ambition to create their own mini-state here and there were behind such practices," he said later during an address in the mainly Shiite city of Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad.
"We saved the police and the army from being politicized, from infiltration and from those who are still insisting on keeping their influence in the police and the army based on their party affiliations," he told supporters.
Al-Maliki's image as a Shiite hard-liner began to change last year when he ordered a military crackdown against Shiite militias in Baghdad, Basra and other parts of the country.
The crackdown helped force a cease-fire by the militias, which contributed to the dramatic drop in violence. Other factors included a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and a U.S. troop buildup in 2007.
Voters on Saturday will be choosing ruling councils in 14 of the country's 18 provinces. It will be the first nationwide balloting in three years.
A strong showing by al-Maliki's Coalition of the State of Law would bolster him against political rivals, including Kurdish and Shiite parties that are nominally part of his ruling alliance but oppose him on key power-sharing issues.
The Supreme Council, which maintains ties to both Iran and the U.S. and is part of his government, would like to take the premiership away from al-Maliki after this year's parliamentary elections.
The party's leader, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, also has been campaigning for candidates on his group's list.
Both leaders also emphasized the need for fair elections after previous votes were marred by a Sunni boycott.
Al-Hakim warned voters not to be swayed by propaganda or false promises but to choose "honest and efficient people."
"I call upon all political entities to urge their observers to have an active presence in the voting centers ... in order to ensure free and honest elections away from fraud," he said during a rally for candidates from the party's list in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
Associated Press writer Muhieddin Rashad contributed to this report.
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