BAGHDAD, Iraq, (AP) -Iraq’s prime minister said Saturday he will reshuffle his Cabinet within two weeks and pursue criminal charges against political figures linked to extremists as a sign of his government’s resolve to restore stability during the U.S.-led security crackdown in Baghdad.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also told The Associated Press during an interview at his Green Zone office that Iraq will work hard to ensure the success of a regional security conference.
The conference in Baghdad, tentatively set for next weekend, is expected to bring together all of Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria, as well as the United States and Britain to find ways to ease this country’s security crisis.
Iran has not announced whether it will attend, but Iraqi officials believe that Tehran will send a representative.
Al-Maliki has been under pressure from the U.S. to bring order into his factious government of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds since it took office last May. Rumors of Cabinet changes have surfaced before, only to disappear because of pressure from coalition members seeking to keep power.
Nevertheless, al-Maliki said there would be a Cabinet reshuffle “either this week or next.”
After the changes are announced, al-Maliki said he would undertake a “change in the ministerial structure,” presumably consolidating and streamlining the 39-member Cabinet.
The prime minister did not say how many Cabinet members would be replaced. But some officials said about nine would lose their jobs, including all six Cabinet members loyal to radical anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, an al-Maliki ally.
Al-Sadr also controls 30 of the 275 parliament seats, and his support for al-Maliki has been responsible for the government’s reluctance to crack down on the cleric’s Mahdi Army militia, blamed for much of the Shiite-Sunni slaughter of the past year.
U.S. officials had been urging al-Maliki to cut his ties to al-Sadr and form a new alliance of mainstream Shiites, moderate Sunnis and Kurds. Al-Maliki had been stalling, presumably at the urging of the powerful Shiite clerical hierarchy that wants to maintain Shiite unity.
But pressure for change has mounted since President Bush ordered 21,500 U.S. troops to Iraq last January despite widespread opposition in Congress and among the U.S. public — weary of the nearly four-year-long war.
Last month, U.S. and Iraqi troops arrested Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili, an al-Sadr ally, for allegedly diverting millions of dollars in government funds to the Mahdi Army and allowing death squads to use ambulances and government hospitals to carry out kidnappings and killings.
During the interview, al-Maliki said other top officials would face prosecution for ties to insurgents, sectarian militias and death squads — including members of parliament.
“There has been coordination between us and the Multinational Forces … starting at the beginning of this year … to determine who should arrested and the reasons behind arresting them,” he said.
Al-Maliki did not elaborate on the U.S.-Iraqi coordination but said Iraqi judicial authorities were reviewing case files to decide which to refer to an Iraqi investigative judge, who must decide whether there is enough evidence to order a trial.
Al-Maliki said he was encouraged by Iraqi public response to the new Baghdad security operation — which has led to a sharp drop in violence in the capital.
He also defended his government, saying it managed to “achieve a lot of harmony and stability” despite attacks by al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein loyalists.
The prime minister did not say how many politicians and officials might be targeted for formal investigation, an Iraqi legal step that corresponds to a grand jury probe.
But five senior Iraqis — two of them generals and three from Shiite and Sunni parties — have told the AP that up to 100 prominent figures could face legal proceedings.
The five spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk about the subject to the media. All five had direct knowledge of the case review.
U.S. officials have said privately that a number of prominent Iraqis were believed to have ties to armed groups.
One Shiite parliament member, Jamal Jaafar Mohammed, is believed to have fled to Iran after U.S. authorities learned that he was convicted by a Kuwaiti court in absentia and sentenced to death in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait.
Mohammed fled Kuwait for Iran before he could be arrested and returned after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. U.S. officials have alleged he was a conduit for Iranian weapons and supplies smuggled to Shiite militias.
U.S. military officials have expressed concern over alleged Iranian weapons shipments and financial support to Shiite parties allied with al-Maliki. The Shiite-led government hopes the upcoming regional conference will ease tensions between the U.S. and Shiite-dominated Iran — and allay Washington’s fears of Tehran’s influence here.
The U.S. also hopes the conference will encourage Syria and other Arab countries — most of them Sunni-led — to increase their support for Iraqi’s leadership, despite regional unease over the Shiite-led government’s ties to Iran.
“In fact the importance of the upcoming conference lies in the fact that the Iraqi government has the ability to serve as a proper venue for solving conflicts,” al-Maliki said.
“So we will exert the utmost effort to find solutions to all pending questions, either among regional countries themselves or between them and Iraq, or between them and powers such as the U.S. and Britain and the international community.”