BAGHDAD – One of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite political and religious figures Friday issued a stunning call for the government to set aside differences with Sunni Muslim politicians and entice them back to help lead the country.
The appeal by Ammar al-Hakim, the son and heir-apparent to the head of Iraq’s main Shiite political bloc, sharply increased pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to bring Sunni factions back into the fold as part of Washington-backed efforts at sectarian reconciliation.
It also could push al-Maliki’s government to accelerate steps to integrate armed Sunni groups that have joined the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq and other extremists. The United States has credited the “Awakening” councils with helping uproot insurgents and has urged Iraq’s Shiite leadership to reward the new Sunni allies with security force posts.
The Awakening councils have played a role in a major U.S. offensive launched this week, an operation that included one of the most intense airstrikes of the war.
A top U.S. commander said Thursday’s bombing blitz south of Baghdad destroyed extremists’ “defensive belts” and allowed American soldiers to push into areas where they have not been in years.
The United States is also counting on political support from al-Hakim and his father, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council – the country’s pre-eminent Shiite political grouping.
The elder al-Hakim, who has been a close ally to the United States since the 2003 invasion, has been diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent chemotherapy last year in Iran, where he spent years in exile during Saddam Hussein’s rule.
Ammar al-Hakim, a moderate Shiite like his father, has taken an increasingly vocal role as his father has undergone medical care.
“I hope that the government will take all needed measures to secure” the return of key Sunni political groups, Ammar al-Hakim said from the pulpit of the Buratha mosque. The main Sunni political organization – the Accordance Front – and the secular Iraqi List left the government after disputes over al-Maliki’s leadership.