BAGHDAD (AFP) – The political group of radical anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has announced it has ended a two-month boycott of the Iraqi government, a move which could help bolster embattled Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
“We are rejoining the political process,” Saleh Hassan Issa al-Igaili, a lawmaker from the cleric’s parliamentary bloc, told AFP Sunday.
The move came amid a stepped-up US and Iraqi military crackdown on Shiite militias, including Sadr’s Mahdi Army, accused of stoking the sectarian violence gripping Iraq.
The group, which has 32 MPs in Iraq’s 275-member parliament and six ministers, had suspended its participation in the national assembly on November 29 in protest at Maliki’s meeting with US President George W. Bush.
The group, known for its strong anti-US stance, announced its return to parliament two days after one of its senior trusted aides was arrested by US and Iraqi forces in a raid on a Shiite religious site in Baghdad.
The arrest of Abdul Hadi al-Darraji was seen as a move to crack down on the militia loyal to Sadr — the Mahdi Army — which is accused by the US authorities of killing hundreds of Sunni Arabs in Baghdad’s sectarian conflict.
Darraji, a spokesman for the movement in Baghdad, was arrested along with four others near the impoverished Shiite stronghold of Sadr City in the east of the capital.
The US military did not identify him by name but said it had arrested an illegal armed group leader involved in the torture and kidnapping of Iraqi civilians.
Igaili said the group ended the boycott after receiving a pledge from the parliament to establish a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops.
“We have also asked for a timetable for training Iraqi forces, and that the mandate for occupation troops not be renewed without consulting the parliament,” Igaili added.
US forces are deployed in Iraq at the invitation of the national government and any parliamentary decision to expel them could trigger a political crisis.
The UN Security Council has renewed the US-led coalition’s mandate until the end of 2007 at the request of Maliki’s government.
During the first few days of its boycott, Sadr’s group had announced plans to build an anti-US parliamentary alliance to demand the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.
Sadr supporters claimed they had identified 100 members of parliament who wanted to send home the roughly 140,000-strong US force backing Maliki, but the issue was never put to a vote.
Parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani confirmed the return of the Sadr bloc, which followed several weeks of talks.
“All recommendations of the committee formed for the return of the Sadr bloc to the parliament have been accepted,” Mashhadani told a news conference.
Another Sadr MP, Baha Al-Araji said the group would attend the assembly session on Sunday.
Sadr had pulled his supporters out of the ruling Shiite-led government in protest at Maliki’s decision to meet Bush in Jordan for crisis talks in November.
A few weeks after their meeting, Bush announced plans to dispatch 21,500 more US troops to Iraq and especially to Baghdad to quell sectarian violence.