- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 12, 2008

BAGHDAD (AP) One of Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite political and religious figures yesterday 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 Shi’ite 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 the al-Maliki government to accelerate steps to integrate armed Sunni groups that have joined the fight against al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremists. The United States has credited the so-called Awakening Councils with helping uproot insurgents and has urged Iraq’s Shi’ite leadership to reward the new Sunni allies with security force posts.

The Awakening Councils have played a role in a major U.S. offensive begun this week, an operation that included one of the most intense air strikes 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 Mr. al-Hakim and his father, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council — the country’s pre-eminent Shi’ite political grouping.

The elder Mr. al-Hakim has been diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent chemotherapy last year in Iran. Ammar al-Hakim, a moderate Shi’ite 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 Mr. al-Maliki’s leadership.

“I call on lawmakers to speed the passage of key legislation. There can be no more delays,” he said, referring to measures on sharing Iraq’s oil wealth, regional elections and the return of Saddam-era figures to the government.

In the massive U.S. military raid south of the capital Thursday, two B1-B bombers and four F-16 fighters dropped 48 precision-guided bombs on 47 targets, U.S. Air Force Col. Peter Donnelly, commander of the 18th Expeditionary Air Support Operations Group, told reporters.

The targets consisted mainly of weapons caches and powerful roadside bombs buried deep underground, said Col. Donnelly and Army Col. Terry Ferrell, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division.

Despite the massive size of the air strikes, Col. Donnelly said that — to the military’s knowledge — no civilians were killed. He said it wasn’t yet known how many insurgents were killed in the attacks. But the leader of the local Awakening Council said the air strikes killed at least 21 al Qaeda militants including a group leader.

Separately, the military announced that Faleh Mansour Hussain, the Sunni chairman of the Yarmouk Neighborhood Council in Baghdad, was killed in a car bombing Tuesday.

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