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Iraqi cleric urges the release of detainees

Move is hint Sunnis may be cooperative

BAGHDAD -- A leading Sunni cleric urged Iraq's new president yesterday to buck US pressure and free thousands of suspected rebels, a sign the religious group most often associated with the Iraqi insurgency might be willing to work with the new government.

But there was no letup in violence, as militants set off four bombs that killed at least two civilians and wounded 14 in Baghdad, capping a bloody week of attacks and clashes.

Also yesterday, Ukraine began withdrawing some of its 1,462 soldiers from Iraq amid plans to have them all out by year's end, the US military said. It said the Ukrainian force would be down to 900 soldiers by May 12.

If President Jalal Talabani ''wants to begin a new page, he must first release those in jail. Secondly, there must be a full pardon," Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samarrai, a cleric in the influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, said during Friday prayers.

He also urged Talabani to refuse to ''obey and kneel to pressure" from US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The United States has opposed freeing prisoners or pardoning insurgents.

It remains unclear how much say Talabani will have in his largely ceremonial post. Prime Minister-designate Ibrahim al-Jaafari is putting together a Cabinet and it isn't known if the new government backs a pardon.

Samarrai's comments came three days after Rumsfeld made a surprise visit to Iraq and urged the emerging government to avoid politicizing the Iraqi military.

After being sworn in as president this month, Talabani appealed to Iraq's homegrown militants to work with the newly elected leadership and suggested they could be pardoned, although he said the government would continue to fight foreign insurgents.

''We must find political and peaceful solutions with those duped Iraqis who have been involved in terrorism and pardon them, and invite them to join the democratic process," Talabani said after his inauguration. ''But we must firmly counter and isolate the criminal terrorism that's imported from abroad."

Most of the 10,500 detainees are held by the US military, and some lawmakers have said the new president is just expressing his personal opinion.

Still, Talabani and other members of the new government are reaching out to Iraq's Sunni minority, which was the dominant group under Saddam Hussein and is believed to be the backbone of the insurgency.

Many Sunnis, who make up 15 percent to 20 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, boycotted the Jan. 30 elections or stayed home for fear of attacks at the polls.

Samarrai's comment was the latest sign that his organization, which has been alleged to have links to insurgents, is responding to the new government.

Two weeks ago, he instructed his followers to begin joining Iraqi security forces.

In a separate development, an Iraqi government minister said yesterday that two mass graves containing as many as 7,000 bodies have been discovered in southern Basra province. The dead are believed to be Iraqi soldiers killed when Hussein put down a military uprising after the 1991 Gulf War.

The new Iraqi government may use some of the evidence to build its case against alleged war criminals, including Hussein, said Bakhtiar Amin, Iraq's human rights minister.

The largest of the gravesites is in a deserted area near the southern port city of Basra, where the uprising was put down. It may hold 5,000 bodies. Amin said the rest of the bodies were found in Samawa in south-central Iraq, which was the base for a Kurdish guerrilla movement.

The two mass graves would be among the largest of 290 secret burial sites found in Iraq since the US-led invasion. Iraqi human rights investigators estimate that 600,000 to 1 million people disappeared during Hussein's rule.

In a political development, the office of Iraq's most influential Shi'ite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said yesterday that he doesn't want leading Shi'ite lawmakers to take posts in the Cabinet so they can focus on the National Assembly's main task of writing a constitution.

Material from The Los Angeles Times was included in this report.

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