A group of senior Sunni Muslim clerics visited Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Tuesday in the holy city of Najaf and emerged from the meeting saying followers of the two sects are "brothers."
"Everybody's aim is to extinguish the fire of strife in our country. This is our call to everyone," said Sheik Mohammed Talabani, head of the Clerics Association in Kurdistan, and a Sunni.
Also Tuesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said his government is holding talks with some insurgent groups, including members of Saddam Hussein's former regime, as part of a reconciliation plan to stop the violence. Al-Maliki did not name the groups which his government is in contact with, but said that when an Iraq conference is held in Egypt early next month, "We will have good chances for reconciliation."
In other developments:
Iraq's Sunni mufti, Sheik Jamaluddin al-Dabban, said al-Sistani asked him to give his regards to all Sunni scholars in the country. "We call for unity," al-Dabban said.
A third cleric from the Kurdish city of Irbil, Sheik Ali al-Khafaji, said "Our aim is Iraq's unity. There is no difference between Sunnis and Shiites. They are all our brothers."
Sunni clerics have frequently visited al-Sistani in the past. They also visited three other top Shiite clerics in Najaf on Tuesday.
Iraq's neighbors and other countries are scheduled to hold a meeting on May 3-4 in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheik.
"We are having meetings with groups that are not part of the political process ... They asked us not to reveal their names," al-Maliki told reporters at his office in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone.
"The talks are still going and they are part of the national reconciliation," he said.
Al-Maliki announced a 24-point national reconciliation program in June, that offers amnesty to members of the Sunni Arab-led insurgency who were not involved in "terrorist activities," and amends a law that removed senior members of Saddam's Baath Party from their jobs.
"Some groups that were involved with the (Saddam) regime are talking with us now," al-Maliki said Tuesday.
Last week, President Jalal Talabani said five insurgent groups have expressed readiness to join the political process, and negotiations with them have reached final stages. Talabani also did not give their names — "because we are still negotiating," he said.
The voice claiming the manufacture of missiles was said to be that of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, head of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group that includes al Qaeda in Iraq. The tape was posted on an Islamic Web site frequently used by militant groups, but its authenticity could not be independently verified.
The rockets — called al-Quds-1, or Jerusalem-1 — "have moved into the phase of military production with an advanced degree of range and accuracy," al-Baghdadi said, without elaborating.
Insurgents in Iraq have used a range of Soviet-era rockets like Katyushas, and shoulder-fired ground-to-air Sam-7 missiles — most of which were looted from Saddam Hussein's massive depots in the lawless days and weeks that followed the collapse of his regime. Recently, the U.S. has accused Iran of funneling Iranian-made weapons to insurgents in Iraq — mostly to Shiite militias but to some Sunnis as well.
Gates, who is traveling in the Middle East, also said he does not yet know whether the departure of the six officials tied to Muqtada al-Sadr will increase the violence by Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
"I think the impact ... that these resignations have will depend, in some measure on who is selected to replace these ministers and their capabilities, and whether those vacancies are used in a way that can perhaps further advance the reconciliation process," said Gates. "There is the opportunity to turn what might seem like a negative potentially into a positive development."
Noting that the six ministers are remaining as members of the council of representatives and therefore not walking away from the process, Gates said it is still not clear what Sadr's motives are for the split.
"In the intelligence business we divided all the information that we wanted to know into two categories — secrets and mysteries," said Gates, a former director of the CIA. "I think that his motives right now, at least for me, are a mystery not a secret."
Gates said that broadening the representation in the cabinet of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's could help advance the reconciliation process.
Sadr has said the reason for the resignations is the lack of a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq — a move that Gates and other Bush administration leaders have opposed.
But Gates again said Tuesday that the ongoing push for a timetable by the Democratically-controlled Congress has been helpful in showing the Iraqis that American patience is limited.
"I've been pretty clear that I think the enactment of specific deadlines would be a bad mistake. But I think the debate itself, and I think the strong feelings expressed in the Congress about the timetable ... probably has had a positive impact — at least I hope it has in terms of communicating to the Iraqis that this is not an open-ended commitment," he said.
Gates spoke to reporters Tuesday after he met with Jordan's King Abdullah II during the first stop of his Middle East trip. Gates is urging U.S. allies in the Middle East to work more closely with the Iraqis in an effort to bolster Maliki's fragile government.