Iraq's Sunni VP wants return to government

Eds: UPDATES throughout with new Sadr City toll, Turkish airstrikes, tightens.

AP Photo BAG104, BAG103

By SAMEER N. YACOUB

Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's Sunni Arab vice president on Saturday called the return of his boycotting political bloc to the Shiite-led Cabinet a priority, saying the government needs to reconcile quickly to "save Iraq."

Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi's comments were the latest to signal readiness by the main Sunni bloc, the National Accordance Front, to rejoin the government after an absence of nearly nine months.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also said Friday that he expected to present a new Cabinet list "within a few days" -- a step that would be a boost to his government and seen by Washington as a significant step forward.

But while the two sides have said they were prepared to join forces for more than a week, internal power struggles within the National Accordance Front have delayed a formal announcement, according to a Sunni official familiar with the negotiations.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said disagreements were focused on who should hold which posts.

Al-Hashemi has been one of al-Maliki's most bitter critics, accusing him of sectarian favoritism, while the prime minister has complained that the vice president is blocking key legislation.

But al-Hashemi and other Sunni leaders apparently have been swayed by al-Maliki's crackdown against Shiite militias that began late last month and focused on the feared Mahdi Army of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Maliki also has threatened to politically isolate al-Sadr if the Mahdi Army is not disbanded.

Shiite militias were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Sunni Arabs in the sectarian bloodletting of 2006 and 2007. The Mahdi Army is blamed for much of the killing.

"The priority today should be given to re-establishing a national government with a clear political program, and to deal with the basic issues regarding services," al-Hashemi said.

"This country needs patriotic stances by parties, one of which is to re-establish a national government as soon as possible so that this new government can take quick important steps in order to save Iraq," he added.

Al-Maliki has struggled with so many of the Cabinet posts vacant to keep together the disparate factions of his government and reconcile Iraq's feuding Shiite and Sunni politicians.

Al-Sadr's followers also left the government last year after the prime minister, himself a Shiite, refused their demands for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Clashes continued Saturday in the Mahdi Army stronghold of Sadr City, a sprawling district in northeastern Baghdad, although they did not appear as fierce in recent days.

Two suspected militants were killed Saturday when an unmanned drone fired a Hellfire missile at a vehicle after observing them loading weapons inside, the military said.

A hospital official in Sadr City, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said six people, including a woman and girl, were killed and 37 others wounded on Saturday.

In other violence, three suicide car bombers targeted Iraqi security forces, killing at least seven people and wounding 28 in the northern city of Mosul, local police spokesman Brig. Gen. Khalid Abdul-Sattar said.

Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, is believed to be the last urban stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq.

Turkish warplanes and artillery units also struck Kurdish rebel positions for a second day in northern Iraqi areas close to the Turkish border. No casualties were reported

The Turkish military said its raids Friday and Saturday targeted Kurdish rebels who were preparing to infiltrate Turkey to carry out attacks.

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Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Bushra Juhi in Baghdad and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.