Two of Iraq's most powerful Shiite leaders agreed Saturday to end a bitter rivalry that has led to armed clashes in Baghdad and across the oil-rich south.
Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the largest Shiite political party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, have promised to "protect Iraqi blood and enhance cooperation between the two movements for the Islamic and national interests and to save the nation."
The agreement comes as mainstream politicians from Iraq's majority sect have been trying to bring al-Sadr back into the fold after his loyalists pulled out of the main Shiite bloc last month.
The Sadrists' pullout left the United Iraqi Alliance, which includes SIIC, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party and some independents, with only 85 seats - a dramatic drop for an alliance that once held 130 seats in the 275-member parliament.
The deal also is an apparent bid to stem factional rivalries and violence that have threatened to spiral out of control, particularly in the oil-rich and mainly Shiite south.
The text of the agreement, signed by both leaders, was broadcast on the Shiite Al-Forat television station, which is run by SIIC. Officials representing both men confirmed the agreement but declined to give more details pending an official announcement.
The principles outlined included "the necessity of protecting and respecting Iraqi blood regardless of the situation or sect," mobilizing all Islamic and cultural institutions on both sides "to maintain friendly feelings and to avoid hatred" and to establish provincial committees aimed at keeping order.
Internal rivalries have been rising in recent months, with the assassination of two provincial governors belonging to SIIC and clashes in several cities between the Mahdi Army and Badr militiamen.
The tensions boiled over in late August when deadly street battles broke out in the holy city of Karbala during a major Shiite religious festival. Dozen of people were killed and anger mounted against the militia fighters, whom many see as criminals.
Trying to do damage control shortly after the Karbala clashes, al-Sadr announced a "freeze" of his militia activities for up to six months to allow for its restructuring. However, it is unclear how much control the youthful cleric maintains over his fighters as groups have splintered from the main movement.
The U.S. military has welcomed al-Sadr's call for his fighters to stand down but says it will continue targeting so-called rogue elements it believes are being trained and funded by Iran.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Iraqi refugees staged a sit-in in Damascus on Saturday to protest a recent nonbinding U.S. Senate resolution that encourages splitting Iraq along ethnic and religious lines.
Carrying Iraqi flags, about 400 protesters gathered in the al-Sayda Zeinab district. "No for occupation and no for division," read a placard carried by one refugee. "Dividing Iraq is the start for dividing all countries in the region," read another.
The resolution is seen in Iraq (and much of the Arab world) as a recipe for splitting the country along sectarian and ethnic lines.
"I'm here to express Iraqi national unity. Here, there is the Sunni, Shiite and the Kurdish under Iraq's umbrella," said Qusai al-Azami, 58.
Sheikh Abdul Nasser al-Janabi, a former member of Iraq's parliament, said that the political process in Iraq "has failed because it is run by the United States which seeks to divide Iraq."
Al-Janabi was sacked from the Iraqi parliament after declaring in June that he was joining Sunni-led insurgents.
The protesters delivered a message to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling for a Security Council resolution that would reject the Senate resolution. It warned that the resolution "endangers Iraq and neighboring countries."
In Other Developments: Five American soldiers have been kille dint eh last three days. Three U.S. soldiers were reported killed Friday in roadside bombings in Baghdad and near Beiji to the north, and one Thursday in a small-arms attack in the capital. On Saturday a soldier was killed and three others were wounded by a roadside bomb in Baghdad, the U.S. military said. The latest deaths raised to 3,814 members of the U.S. military who have died since the invasion and occupation of Iraq began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. On Friday, the U.S. military said it was investigating the deaths of three civilians shot by American sentries near an Iraqi-manned checkpoint near Musayyib, 40 miles south of Baghdad. Iraqi officials said the victims were U.S.-allied guards and were mistakenly targeted. On Saturday, the decapitated bodies of two members of an awakening council in Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad, were found. Both were Sunnis. In other violence Saturday, a U.S. soldier was killed and three others were wounded by a roadside bombing while they were taking part in a raid against suspected insurgents in the capital, the U.S. military said in a statement. The military also said Iraqi police had detained a fellow officer believed responsible for Thursday's killing the top district official, Abbas Hassan Hamza, and four of his bodyguards in Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad. The suspect was accused of telling Shiite militia fighters when to detonate the explosively formed penetrator, or EFP, a weapon that the military says is being supplied by Iran. In Poland, a doctor said the country's ambassador to Iraq was being kept in an artificial coma after suffering severe burns in an apparent assassination attempt earlier this week in downtown Baghdad. The ambassador, Gen. Edward Pietrzyk, was wounded when his convoy was ambushed with roadside bombs while traveling Wednesday through downtown Baghdad. A Polish security guard and two others were killed. Officials had initially said that Pietrzyk only suffered minor injuries, but a doctor treating him in Poland, where he was brought for treatment, described his condition as serious but stable. The government of Iraq will sue an Iraqi judge who led the U.S.-established Commission on Public Integrity for smuggling documents, libeling the prime minister and corruption, according to a statement released Saturday by the prime minister's office. Radhi Hamza al-Radhi, who's seeking asylum in the U.S., said he was forced to flee Iraq after trying to unearth instances of government fraud and abuse. Last week he testified to a U.S. Congressional committee about the alleged improprieties in the higher echelons of al-Maliki's government. But the statement called Al-Radhi's accusations nothing more than "lies" that were part of a smear campaign against the Iraqi Prime Minister. A Baghdad governor escaped unharmed on Saturday when his convoy came under attack by insurgents in the Sadiyah neighborhood, a predominantly Sunni district in the southwest of the Iraqi capital. Hussein al-Tahan, a Shiite, was leaving a meeting with local officials and U.S. soldiers in the district when his convoy came under fire from buildings lining a largely deserted street. An AP Television cameraman who was in the governor's convoy videotaped the gun battle. The governor's guard force exchanged fire with the attackers for several minutes. No one in the convoy was known to have been wounded. The governor's office called the incident a "cowardly act" aimed at disrupting local services, according to an official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. A Shiite militia leader believed to be responsible for sectarian cleansing north of Baghdad was captured the same day another raid in the same town left 25 people dead, the U.S. military said Saturday. In Baghdad, more than 1,000 residents gathered Saturday in the Shiite-dominated western neighborhood of Washash to protest concrete partitions the military says have been erected for their safety. Protesters said the walls serve more to keep them cut off from the rest of the capital. Salam Rasheed al-Iqabi, a local sheik, said the wall paralyzes the movement of the people. "We want the wall removed," he told the AP Television News. Others spent Saturday visiting their inmate relatives in an Iraqi-run prison in western Baghdad. APTN footage showed inmates in orange jumpsuits sitting with family members, hugging and kissing their children.
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