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Iraq premier asks for help from Saddam's army

Iraq’s army has “opened its doors” to all former members of Saddam Hussein’s army, the prime minister said Saturday at a national reconciliation conference boycotted by one of his main Shiite allies, a major Sunni group and Iraq’s exiled opposition.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Iraq’s army has “opened its doors” to all former members of Saddam Hussein’s army, the prime minister said Saturday at a national reconciliation conference boycotted by one of his main Shiite allies, a major Sunni group and Iraq’s exiled opposition.

Despite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s effort to reach out to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and some former members of Saddam’s outlawed Baath Party, the gathering was overshadowed by rising sectarian tensions and political divisions.

The radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, one of al-Maliki’s key political backers — refused to attend the meeting, as did a major Sunni group and former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite.

The U.S. military raided the Shiite slum of Sadr City — a stronghold for the Mahdi Army militia that is blamed for some of the worst violence against Iraq’s Sunnis — and detained six suspects. The raid and airstrike left one fighter dead and another wounded.

“We firmly believe that national reconciliation is the only guaranteed path toward security, stability and prosperity. The alternative, God forbid, is death and destruction and the loss of Iraq,” said al-Maliki, whose time in office have been defined by a surge in sectarian violence and failure to end an insurgency, improve services or reduce high crime and unemployment rates.

Some Baath Party members not linked to the Sunni-led insurgency, as well as former army officers, were among the delegates, organizers said.

Setting conditions for army
Al-Maliki reached out to the officers and soldiers who lost their posts after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam nearly four years ago.

He imposed few conditions on the return of former military personnel, only cautioning that those allowed to serve in the new army should be loyal to the country and conduct themselves professionally.

He also said the size of the army might limit the number accepted but those unable to join would be given pensions.

Two aides to al-Maliki, speaking on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to disclose information to the media, said Saddam-era officers could apply to be reinstated regardless of their rank. But they said admission would depend on their professional and physical suitability for service as well as the extent of their links to the Baath Party.

The government had previously invited former officers up to the rank of major to join the new army. The outreach and pension offer were apparent concessions to a long-standing demand by Sunni Arab politicians who argue that the neglect of former army soldiers was pushing them into the arms of the insurgency.

The criticism was echoed in remarks by Saleem Abdullah, a spokesman for the Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front.

“This conference can be successful if its participants have the spirit of reconciliation and the honest desire for unity,” he said, warning that the conference will end in failure “if the practical reality remains the same.”

'De-Baathification' reviewed
L. Paul Bremer, Iraq’s former U.S. governor, dissolved Iraq’s 400,000-strong army soon after American forces overthrew Saddam’s regime in April 2003. The decision is widely seen as a mistake because it drove many into opposition.

“The new Iraqi army has opened its doors for members of the former army, officers and soldiers, and the national unity government is prepared to absorb those who have the desire to serve the nation,” al-Maliki said.

He said the government needed “their energies, expertise and skills in order to complete the building of our armed forces.”

Al-Maliki also called on parliament to review the “de-Baathification” clauses in the constitution adopted last year to ensure what he called the rights of the families of those fired from government jobs for their membership in the party.

Conference boycotted by many
The two-day conference is being held at the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, home to the Iraqi government offices as well as the U.S. and British embassies. Nasir al-Ani, a spokesman for the conference, said “very few” of the opposition leaders living in exile and invited to attend showed up.

Al-Sadr’s bloc also boycotted the conference, complaining that it included Baathists and Sunni extremists.

“There is no point in holding these conferences.... Because the situation is getting worse,” said Firas al-Mitairi, a spokesman for the bloc.

Al-Maliki also reiterated his plans to disband Shiite militias said to be behind much of the sectarian violence. Foremost among these is al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, whose militiamen fought U.S. troops for much of 2004.

“There must be a solution to this problem and the militias must be disbanded and integrated into various state institutions,” said al-Maliki, who has so far resisted U.S. pressure to take concrete measures against the militias.

The raid earlier Saturday in the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City was aimed at capturing a leader of an illegally armed group of more than 100 people believed responsible for kidnappings, killings, illegal checkpoints, rocket attacks and bombings against security forces and civilians in northeastern Baghdad.

The U.S. military did not identify the target further. It said no civilians or Iraqi or coalition forces suffered casualties and minimal damage was caused to the area.

At least 14 people also were killed or found dead in Iraq, including a Christian car mechanic who was shot to death in the northern city of Mosul.