Thursday, March 19, 2009

BAGHDAD (AP) - The head of the Arab League said Thursday that Iraqis must succeed in their push for national reconciliation to achieve stability after years of brutal sectarian warfare.

Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the 22-nation organization, also said the withdrawal of U.S. forces will be a key factor in reaching that goal.

“Iraq’s stability can only be achieved through two key things,” Moussa said after meeting Iraq’s senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf. “These are to stop all sectarianism polarization … and the withdrawal of the U.S. forces. These two things are linked.”

Moussa’s mostly Sunni organization has begun to engage with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government after shunning it for years following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

In a thinly veiled reference to Iran, Moussa blamed interference from neighboring countries for fueling the violence. But he said differences between Arab countries and the Shiite Islamic republic should be resolved based on “mutual interests and respect.”

Moussa arrived Monday for his first trip to Iraq since October 2005, months before the bombing of a Shiite shrine north of Baghdad led to months of fierce sectarian fighting.

Mostly Sunni Arab nations have begun to engage with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government after shunning it for years to avoid implying approval of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Moussa’s visit and push for reconciliation comes as many of his member nations are seeking to prevent Iran from gaining dominant influence in Iraq with the impending withdrawal of American forces by the end of 2011.

Violence has declined sharply in Iraq following a 2007 U.S. troop buildup, a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and a militia cease-fire called by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Last year, al-Sadr ordered most of his Mahdi Army militiamen to lay down their arms to form a new social welfare network, although he retained a small fighting force.

He praised his new social organization known as the “Momahidoun,” or “those who pave the way,” and renewed his call for members to denounce violence in a statement issued Wednesday by his office in the holy city of Najaf.

“We praise and highly appreciate the work of those who are leading or participating in the big and effective Momahidoun project,” al-Sadr said. “We hope they will continue to denounce violence and to raise science and culture as a weapon.”

Al-Sadr, who is believed to be in Iran, is trying to position himself as a political force ahead of national elections expected later this year.

He also faces a challenge from breakaway Shiite militia groups that continue to stage attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Separately, the U.S. military released about 100 more detainees as part of a security agreement with Iraq that took effect Jan. 1.

The inmates were greeted with hugs and cheers by relatives in Baghdad after they were released from the Camp Bucca detention center in southern Iraq.

The U.S. military said earlier this month that the number of detainees held by the Americans in Iraq _ many without charge _ has dropped to 13,832 from a peak of 26,000 in 2007.


Associated Press Writer Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.

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