Iraq's Sunni VP Meets Top Shiite Cleric

(AP) - Iraq's Sunni vice president held a rare meeting with the country's top Shiite cleric Thursday to seek support for a 25-point blueprint for political reform, the latest effort by both Islamic sects to promote unity amid unrelenting violence.

A wave of bombings and shootings has swept Iraq, killing more than 50 people on Wednesday and raising fears that al- Qaida had launched a promised new offensive. The U.S. military acknowledged that violence was rising and blamed it on the terrorist movement.

Another parked car bomb struck a predominantly Shiite area in eastern Baghdad on Thursday, killing two civilians and wounding four, a policeman said. The officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said the car was left in an alley, apparently to avoid security barriers surrounding a nearby market area.

Several uniformed workers, meanwhile, swept hunks of metal and other debris from a car bombing in western Baghdad on Wednesday into mounds of rubble as onlookers watched.

The blast in Baiyaa killed at least seven people and wounded 30, according to local police and the operations room of the Interior Ministry. They disputed reports that 32 people were killed.

In a Web posting Sept. 15, the Islamic State of Iraq, an al- Qaida front group, announced a new offensive for the ongoing Islamic holy month of Ramadan in memory of Abu Musab al- Zarqawi , the founder of al- Qaida in Iraq who was killed last year in a U.S. airstrike .

The statement said the Islamic State would hunt down tribal sheiks and officials who cooperate with the Americans. Nine days later, a suicide bomber struck a Shiite-Sunni reconciliation meeting in Baqouba , killing 24 people, including the city police chief.

Vice President Tariq al- Hashemi said Grand Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani praised his initiative during their two-hour meeting in the holy city of Najaf , 100 miles south of Baghdad. The reclusive Shiite spiritual leader previously has met with Sunni clerics, but it was his first meeting with a senior government official from the disaffected minority Islamic sect, aides said.

"He generally blesses the initiative," al- Hashemi said, saying he found al- Sistani politically "neutral" and eager to promote national unity.

Al- Sistani has played a key role in shaping the political future of Iraq following the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime and wields considerable influence over Shiite politicians and their followers.

Al- Hashemi's blueprint appears to be, at least in part, an attempt to enhance his reputation as a national statesman and project an image of moderation for his Iraqi Islamic Party and the three-party alliance - the Iraq Accordance Front.

He said he had submitted it to the Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki and the Shiite bloc the United Iraqi Alliance.

"The time has come to sit around the table and have a candid dialogue about key and sensitive matters," al- Hashemi said at a news conference Wednesday at which he unveiled the blueprint in Baghdad.

His proposals are the latest in a series of highly publicized documents designed to end Iraq's sectarian violence and the Sunni-led insurgency. These include an agreement between senior Sunni and Shiite clerics reached in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, last year and a national reconciliation plan announced by al- Maliki on taking office in May 2006.

Neither declaration made a difference on the ground and there's no reason to believe that al- Hashemi's proposals would have greater success in inspiring the country's rival groups to set aside their differences to embark on serious reform.

But al- Hashemi and his Islamic party have been intensely courted by Shiite and Kurdish leaders, whose communities account for 80 percent of Iraq's population. The Shiites and Kurds need meaningful Sunni representation to meet U.S. demands for wider political inclusion.

The blueprint, which al- Hashemi called the Iraqi National Compact, stressed basic democratic principles like respect for human rights, equality before the law, the sanctity of places of worship, prohibition of the use of force to attain political goals, filling government jobs according to merit and keeping the army and police above sectarian or political affiliations.

It also proposed a blanket pardon for Iraqis who took up arms against the government and the U.S.-led coalition forces in exchange for laying down their arms and joining the political process. And it included a nod to Iraq's Kurds, stating that "pending" issues could be "resolved through compromise," a reference to the disputed Kurdish claim to the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk .

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