NAJAF, Iraq (AFP)- Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s political movement said on Sunday its defection was not aimed at toppling Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki despite having dealt another blow to Iraq’s embattled premier.
“We have absolutely no intention of pushing Prime Minister Maliki out,” Liwa Sumaysim, head of the political committee of the Sadr group, told AFP in the holy city of Najaf.
Sumaysim late Saturday announced at Sadr’s headquarters in Najaf that the movement was withdrawing its 32 MPs from the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), leaving Maliki’s coalition in control of only about half the seats in parliament.
“Our protest was about the attitude of the Shiite alliance in which they rejected our demands,” he said.
Announcing the pullout, Sumaysim had complained of “no positive response from the Shiite alliance.”
He did elaborate but other Sadr officials complained that Maliki had stopped consulting them over decisions and ordered an inquiry into the movement’s Mahdi Army militia, widely blamed for violence during a Shiite pilgrimage in the shrine city of Karbala last month that killed 52 people.
Maliki’s office did not immediately react to the withdrawal while Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh declined to comment.
“It is not our affair. It is the affair of parliament. Only parliament can comment on this,” Dabbagh told AFP.
Abbas al-Bayati, a Turkmen Shiite lawmaker and member of the UIA, said the alliance would try to persuade the Sadr bloc to return.
“We will not neglect the Sadr movement and will keep open channels of dialogue with them to listen to them and understand the reasons for their withdrawal.”
Bayati did not believe that the Sadr movement’s decision was final. “They will not go too far away from the alliance, their withdrawal is not decisive,” he said.
But Sheikh Saleh al-Obeidi, the movement’s spokesman in Najaf, was adamant there was no going back.
“We do not expect to return to the alliance. The alliance made some courteous communications, and there were no serious attempts from them for understanding us.
“In future, we will make studied steps and will not give our support for any party free of charge,” Obeidi said at Saturday’s press conference.
The UIA initially comprised four key Shiite factions — the Sadr group, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), the Dawa party and the Fadhila party — and held 130 of the 275 seats in parliament.
However, the number dropped to 115 when the Fadhila party pulled out in March. The Sadr bloc has 32 seats in parliament.
The decision of Sadrists to pull out of the Shiite alliance will paralyse Maliki further, said Kurdish lawmaker Mahmud Othman.
“The government is on a shaky ground. If somebody moves a no-confidence motion in the parliament then we will know who has how much support,” Othman told AFP.
Maliki’s government can now only count on the support of 136 lawmakers, including 53 from two Kurdish groups.
If the Sadr bloc votes against him, it would bring the numbers of MPs who oppose him to 127. The other 12 MPs represent various small parties and could vote either way.
The Sadr group five months ago withdrew its six ministers, including Sumaysim, from Maliki’s government, saying Baghdad had failed to provide basic services to the people.
On Saturday, Obeidi said the Sadrists were now planning to negotiate with the Fadhila party for a possible “future together.”
Iraq’s fractious government is made up of ministers from both sides of the sectarian divide but there are frequent rows between Sunni and Shiite leaders and it has difficulty governing.
Maliki has said he will announce a cabinet reshuffle but has so far not been able to fill the vacant seats left by the Sunni and Shiite ministers. He is currently running the government with 23 ministers out of an original 40.
In the latest violence, a car bomb in a crowded Baghdad market street followed by fierce clashes between insurgents and security forces killed nine people and wounded 19 on Sunday, security and medical officials said.
And a suicide bomber killed at least six people and wounded more than 20 as he triggered his explosive vest in a crowded cafe in the northern town of Tuz.