Six Sadr Loyalists Quit Cabinet in Challenge to Iraqi Premier

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

BAGHDAD, April 16 -- In the first major shake-up of Iraq's fragile coalition government, six ministers loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr pulled out of the cabinet on Monday over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's refusal to set a timetable for an American troop withdrawal from Iraq.

The action frees Maliki to pick qualified people to fill ministries that are widely seen as ineffective, corrupt and sectarian. Yet it could also deepen tensions with Sadr within the government and on the streets, which could thwart U.S. and Iraqi efforts to bring about political reconciliation and stability, Iraqi officials and analysts said.

The withdrawal occurred on a day when the U.S. military reported the deaths of seven American troops, including five who were killed Monday -- three soldiers in Baghdad and two Marines in Anbar province -- and two soldiers slain on Saturday in Fallujah.

At the Iraqi parliament, where a suicide attacker detonated explosives last Thursday, killing one person and injuring 22, senior Sadr legislators on Monday framed the ministers' decision to leave in nationalistic terms. They declared that they wanted Maliki to replace Sadr loyalists in the cabinet with "independent technocrats" who would not place sect, tribe or religion over the best interests of Iraqis. Then, they urged other political parties to follow their example.

"I ask God to give the people an independent, devoted government that will be like a candle in the middle of darkness," Sadr said in a statement that Nassar al-Rubaie, a member of Sadr's political bloc in parliament, read to reporters.

While the withdrawal is unlikely to collapse the government in the short term, it is a challenge to Maliki and his fractured government to fix Iraq's problems. Sadr's legislators blamed the government for not providing basic services, although they themselves ran ministries such as health and transportation.

Even with the resignations, Sadr will remain a potent political force. His loyalists hold 30 seats in Iraq's parliament and for now plan to remain a part of the ruling Shiite political alliance, the Sadr lawmakers said.

Sadr, who has long demanded a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, has threatened before to leave the U.S.-backed government. Last November, his legislators pulled out for nearly two months to protest Maliki's meeting with President Bush in Amman, Jordan. But in conversations after Monday's news conference, the legislators said the difference now is that they have no intention of returning to the cabinet.

"There is no chance," said Bahar al-Araji, a Sadr legislator.

For several months, Maliki has said he intended to reshuffle his cabinet. Sadr's officials four months ago sent him a list of 18 people as candidates to lead the six ministries the Sadrists presently control, said Araji. Falah Shanshal, head of Sadr's parliamentary bloc, acknowledged that their decision to leave was partly because Maliki would not choose any of their candidates.

Araji said they would no longer have to support Maliki's decisions and their action would give them greater power in parliament.

"We are free because we are not in the government," Araji said. "If the prime minister doesn't do what we want, we can do something to the prime minister. We can make him leave the government."

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