NAJAF, Iraq (AFP) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki took a major step toward staying in power on Saturday when a top Shiite cleric said he would not stop him from keeping his job, but an arch-rival warned of civil war.
A spokesman for Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical, anti-US cleric who is currently living in Iran, told AFP the movement would drop a veto against Maliki seeking a new term as long as he met its condition that Sadrist prisoners be freed.
Sadr has previously opposed Maliki’s quest to stay on as premier after a general election which he lost more than two months ago and several public statements delivered by his aides have been highly critical of the incumbent.
But Saturday’s conciliatory statement, which followed discussions between the two sides in the past 48 hours, was a big boost to Maliki’s chances, and it effectively eliminated the biggest hurdle impeding his chances.
“If (Maliki) will give us sufficient guarantees to end our reluctance, especially concerning the arrests of Sadrists, then we will not block his candidacy for a second term,” Sadr spokesman Saleh al-Obeidi told AFP from the Shiite holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq.
He cautioned, however, that Maliki had “not yet succeeded” in meeting the group’s demand that around 2,000 of its followers, who were detained on the prime minister’s orders, be released.
The Sadrist movement is part of a recently formed Shiite coalition that includes Maliki’s State of Law Alliance, but the cleric’s political bloc had long despised the premier, who had authorised an assault on its armed wing, the Mahdi Army, in 2008.
Sadr, in an interview with Al-Jazeera television after the election, said he had “tried not to have a veto against anyone, but the masses had a veto against Maliki.”
The new Sadrist stance was welcomed by Maliki adviser Ali Mussawi who said it “paved the way to agreement with other blocs to solve the problem of forming a government,” a process that has been deadlocked since the election.
Mussawi said Maliki could not intervene in the case of Sadrist prisoners who have been formally charged with an offence, but “committees have been formed… to release innocent prisoners as soon as possible.”
The latest announcement came as former premier Iyad Allawi, who narrowly beat Maliki in the March 7 general election, said if recent violence that has swept through Iraq were to continue then civil war loomed.
His comments came after around five dozen attacks in five cities on Monday killed 110 people and wounded more than 500, in the deadliest streak of violence to hit the country this year.
“After the elections we have seen a new wave of sectarianism which is very dangerous and we have indications that we are heading towards a new peak,” Allawi told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo.
“We are just at the beginning, but if the violence continues we are heading towards civil war.”
A further 25 people were killed on Friday in a double bomb attack at a football match in northern Iraq.
Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc won 91 seats in the election, two more than State of Law, with the Iraqi National Alliance, of which the Sadrists are a part, coming in third with 70 seats.
Meanwhile, former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal accused Maliki of trying to hijack the results of the election.
“Adding to the brutal mayhem taking place there, we are watching a deliberate effort on the part of the incumbent prime minister, Mr al-Maliki, to hijack the results of the election and deny the Iraqi people their legitimately elected government,” Prince Turki said in Riyadh.
“The consequences of that are more bloodshed and potential civil war,” said Prince Turki, who has no official position but is believed to often reflect high-level Saudi thinking.