BAGHDAD – Anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr strongly supports demands by Iraqi Christians and other minorities for guaranteed seats on regional governing councils, his chief spokesman said Tuesday.
Al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia battled U.S. and Iraqi forces until he declared a cease-fire last year, would also be ready to mobilize street protests to support the minorities’ cause, spokesman Salah al-Obeidi said.
Iraq’s parliament approved a new law last week that paves the way for the first provincial elections in four years, a move widely praised as a sign of progress in the U.S.-backed government’s efforts to promote national unity.
But the law removed a measure that reserved a few provincial council seats for Christians and other religious minorities – sparking outrage among the Christians and Yazidis, a small Kurdish-speaking sect, who argued they should have a voice in the mostly Muslim country.
The measure still needs to be approved by the three-member presidential panel led by Jalal Talabani, a Kurd.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, also has asked lawmakers to restore the quotas – an appeal that gained momentum Tuesday as both Sunni and Shiite leaders gave their backing to the minorities.
The Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party called on parliament to restore the quotas, arguing that â€œall Iraqis must enjoy all their civil and political rights without exception.”
â€œWe have to achieve unity among all Iraqis for the sake of a prosperous and unified Iraq,” it said.
Safiya al-Suhail, a female Shiite lawmaker whose father was assassinated by Saddam Hussein’s agents in Beirut in the 1990s, called on Talabani to reject the law as it stands now.
â€œIgnoring the rights of the minorities in the provincial elections law is a disaster for the democracy of Iraq,” she said. â€œWe should work to make a legal adjustment as soon as parliament resumes its sessions.”
Talabani vetoed a previous version of the law due to a Kurdish-Arab dispute over power-sharing issues in the oil-rich area of Kirkuk. That issue was set aside to obtain consensus on the current law amid heavy U.S. pressure.
Thousands of Christians protested Sunday to demand the safeguards be put back into law, some expressing fear that the erosion of their rights was an attempt to force them to flee the country.
â€œWe strongly support the minorities in claiming their rights in the provincial elections law,” al-Sadr’s spokesman, al-Obeidi, told The Associated Press.
â€œAccording to Muqtada al-Sadr’s latest instructions, we are ready to support them if they ask for support. We can stage a huge demonstration if they want,” said al-Obeidi.