- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2007

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Sunni vice president held a rare meeting yesterday with the country’s top Shi’ite cleric to seek support for a 25-point blueprint for political reform, the latest effort by the two branches of Islam to promote unity amid unrelenting violence.

A wave of bombings and shootings has swept Iraq, killing more than 50 people in the past two days and raising fears that al Qaeda has begun a promised new offensive. The U.S. military acknowledged that violence was rising and blamed it on the terrorist movement.

The military also reported it had opened an investigation into the deaths of five women and four children this week in a village where American forces had carried out ground and air assaults.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Iraq will sign a security agreement to combat Turkey’s Kurdish rebels taking refuge in northern Iraq, an Iraqi official said after arduous talks.

“The agreement will be signed tomorrow at 11:00 by the Turkish and Iraqi interior ministers,” Besir Atalay and Jawad al-Bolani, the Iraqi official, Aydin Halid, told Turkey’s Anatolia news agency yesterday. The news was reported by Agence France-Presse.

In a separate event, reflecting the complexity of the U.S. fight, a U.S. soldier cried yesterday as he told a court-martial that his staff sergeant ordered him to shoot an unarmed Iraqi.

Sgt. Evan Vela, 23, speaking barely above a whisper, said the sergeant then laughed and told the trooper to finish the job as the dying man convulsed on the ground.

Sgt. Vela told the story during the second day of the court-martial of Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval, of Laredo, Texas, who is on trial for purportedly killing Iraqis and trying to cover up the deaths by planting weapons at the scene.

Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi said Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani praised his initiative during their two-hour meeting in the holy city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad.

The reclusive Shi’ite spiritual leader has previously met with Sunni clerics, but it was his first meeting with a senior government official from the disaffected minority Islamic sect, aides said.

“He generally blesses the initiative,” Mr. al-Hashemi said, saying he found Ayatollah al-Sistani politically “neutral” and eager to promote national unity. Ayatollah al-Sistani wields considerable influence over Shi’ite politicians and their followers.

Mr. al-Hashemi said he had submitted the blueprint to Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Shi’ite bloc the United Iraqi Alliance.

His proposals are the latest in a series designed to end Iraq’s sectarian violence and Sunni-led insurgency. These include an agreement between senior Sunni and Shi’ite clerics reached in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, last year and a national reconciliation plan announced by Mr. al-Maliki upon taking office in May 2006.

Neither declaration made a difference on the ground, and there is no reason to think Mr. al-Hashemi’s proposals would have greater success.

The blueprint stresses basic democratic principles like respect for human rights, equality before the law, the sanctity of places of worship, prohibition of the use of force to attain political goals, filling government jobs according to merit and keeping the army and police above sectarian or political affiliations.

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