- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2007

2:11 p.m.

BAGHDAD — Cabinet ministers loyal to the militant Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr resigned today to protest the prime minister’s refusal to set a timetable for an American withdrawal.

The number of bodies found dumped in Baghdad increased sharply yesterday to 30 — most of them tortured before they were shot execution-style — in a sign that Sheik al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia may have returned to the streets even ahead of the resignations.

The departure of the six ministers, though unlikely to topple Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, deals a significant blow to the U.S.-backed leader, who relied on support from the Sadrists to gain office.

Earlier in the day, Nassar al-Rubaie, head of the Sadrist bloc, declared that the ministers would “give the six Cabinet seats to the government, with the hope that they will be given to independents who represent the will of the people.”

The White House said Sheik al-Sadr’s decision to pull out his ministers does not mean that Mr. al-Maliki loses his majority.

“I’d remind you that Iraq’s system of government is a parliamentary democracy and it’s different from our system. So coalitions and those types of parliamentary democracies can come and go,” said Dana Perino, a White House spokeswoman.

Sheik al-Sadr, who has tremendous influence among Iraq’s majority Shi’ites, has been upset about recent arrests of his Mahdi Army fighters in the U.S.-led Baghdad security crackdown. He and his followers also have criticized Mr. al-Maliki for failing to back calls for a timetable for U.S. troops to leave the country.

The prime minister issued a statement later today saying “the withdrawal of multinational forces is linked to our armed forces’ readiness to take over the security command in all provinces.”

One week ago, on the fourth anniversary of Baghdad’s fall, Sheik al-Sadr mobilized tens of thousands of Iraqis for a peaceful demonstration in two Shi’ite holy cities. At the rally, many participants called for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

Mr. al-Rubaie said the Sadrists’ withdrawal from the Cabinet was because the prime minister did not respond to demands made at last week’s demonstration.

He also relayed a demand by Sheik al-Sadr’s movement that all detainees held by “occupation forces” be transferred to Iraqi authorities “because this is part of sovereignty.”

Sheik al-Sadr’s followers hold six positions in the 37-member Cabinet and 30 seats in the 275-member parliament. Today’s order would affect only the Cabinet members.

“We will have a major role in working on a timetable in parliament. This will be our message to the government,” Mr. al-Rubaie said. “Setting a timetable for the withdrawal will be done in parliament.”

Other legislators said the withdrawal was likely to further destabilize Mr. al-Maliki’s already shaky hold on power.

“The withdrawal will affect the performance of the government, and will weaken it,” said Abdul-Karim al-Ouneizi, a Shi’ite legislator from the Dawa Party-Iraq Organization. Mr. al-Ouneizi is from a different branch of the party Mr. al-Maliki heads.

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