- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 29, 2006

12:29 p.m.

BAGHDAD — Lawmakers and Cabinet ministers loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have suspended participation in parliament and the government to protest Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s meeting today with President Bush.

A statement from the 30 lawmakers and six Cabinet ministers said the meeting constituted a “provocation to the feelings of the Iraqi people and a violation of their constitutional rights.”

The support of the Sadrist bloc in the 275-member parliament was crucial to Mr. al-Maliki’s election as prime minister this year, a fact that many see reflected in his reluctance to take action against the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to Sheik al-Sadr and known to be behind much of the sectarian violence in Iraq.

Mr. al-Maliki and Mr. Bush were meeting later in the day in Amman, Jordan, seeking to end the violence in Iraq.

The Sadrists had threatened to quit the government and parliament if Mr. al-Maliki went ahead with the meeting. By downgrading their protest to a suspension of membership, the politicians left open a return to their jobs at a later date.

The move and its timing were certain to weigh on Mr. al-Maliki during what could be the most important round of talks between an American and Iraqi leader since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.

Disbanding Shi’ite militias such as the Mahdi Army and Badr Brigade, which also is linked to a major Shi’ite political party, has been a key demand as the Bush administration looks for ways to contain the violence in Iraq and win over Sunni Arabs who make up the three-year-old insurgency.

“This visit hijacked the will of the people during days when the sons of Iraq write their destiny with blood and not ink,” said the Sadrist statement, which referred to Mr. Bush as “cursed,” the “world’s biggest evil” and a “criminal.”

The statement also criticized Mr. al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-dominated government for its decision to request from the United Nations a one-year extension of the stay in Iraq of the U.S.-led multinational force numbering about 160,000. The request was granted yesterday.

The Sadrist politicians argued that the multinational force played a “suspicious” role in Iraq and accused Mr. al-Maliki of ignoring the views of parliament by seeking a renewal of the deployment.

Meanwhile, fierce fighting today between coalition forces and insurgents shut down the city of Baqouba, which has been roiled by violence in recent days, killing scores of militants and civilians.

Suspected insurgents attacked the police headquarters in downtown Baqouba, sparking a clash with police that left five of the attackers dead, police said.

Coalition forces backed by U.S. aircraft also killed eight al-Qaeda-in-Iraq insurgents during a raid near the city that also left two Iraqi women dead, the U.S. military said.

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