Saturday, May 27, 2006

Iran minister thanks Iraqi cleric for unity efforts(Sistani)

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki met leading Iraqi cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on Saturday in one of Iraq's holiest cities and thanked him for promoting unity between Iraq's groups. The meeting with Sistani, who has emerged as perhaps the most powerful man in Iraq after Saddam Hussein's downfall, in the Shi'ite holy city of Najaf was likely to fuel Sunni Arab fears that Shi'ite Iran was trying to gain influence in Iraq.

Mottaki, who had talks with Iraq's new, Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad on Friday, also visited another Shi'ite shrine city, Kerbala. Shi'ite shrines have been a particular target of groups trying to foment violence between the Shi'ite majority and the Sunnis, who dominated Iraq under Saddam. Sistani has repeatedly urged Shi'ites not to get sucked into sectarian conflict.

After meeting Sistani, Mottaki thanked the Shi'ite religious establishment, or Marjaiya, which Sistani heads. "I presented my gratitude to the Marjaiya for working for the unity of the Iraqi people," he told reporters. "This visit (to the holy cities) raises my spirits," he said. His comments were translated into Arabic. Mottaki's trip to Iraq was the second such visit from Iran since U.S.-led forces overthrew Saddam in 2003 and oversaw the election of an Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim leadership close to Iran.

The new national unity government of Shi'ite Islamist Nuri al-Maliki, sworn in on May 20, has vowed to rein in the violence that has killed thousands of Iraqis in the past three years. But the Sunni minority are suspicious of non-Arab Iran, against which Iraq fought a war in the 1980s. Sunni leaders accuse Tehran of fomenting unrest in Iraq to shackle U.S. military power in the region and of coveting oil reserves in Iraq's Shi'ite south.


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