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Maliki calls for unity in Iraq

Visits Hussein's hometown

BAGHDAD -- Iraq's Shi'ite prime minister carried an appeal for unity to Saddam Hussein's hometown yesterday and told Sunni tribal chieftains that all Iraqis must join to crush Al Qaeda in Iraq and extremist Shi'ite militias "to save our coming generations."

Nouri al-Maliki's bold sojourn into Tikrit -- a city once pampered by Hussein, its favorite son -- underlined the prime minister's determination to save his paralyzed government from collapse and prevent further disillusionment in Washington as voices grow for a troop withdrawal plan.

The sharp alteration in the government's political course -- a willingness to travel to the belly of the Sunni insurgency and talk with former enemies -- suggested a new flexibility from the hard-line religious Shi'ites who hold considerable influence over Maliki's views.

It also pointed to an apparent shift in military and political attention to northern Iraq, as extremists seek new bases after being driven from Baghdad and strongholds in central Iraq by US-led offensives.

"There is more uniting us than dividing us," Maliki told sheiks in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad. "We do not want to allow Al Qaeda and the militias to exist for our coming generations. Fighting terrorism gives us a way to unite."

Maliki's turnaround has been startling, given accusations of a bias in favor of his Shi'ite sect.

He owed his premiership to the backing of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, nominal head of the Mahdi Army militia that has cleared mixed Baghdad neighborhoods of Sunni residents.

Throughout his first year in office, Maliki sought to protect the fighters from US raids on their Sadr City stronghold in eastern Baghdad. He ended these safeguards this spring after Sadr loyalists quit the Cabinet because Maliki refused to set a timetable for an American withdrawal.

The prime minister reportedly engaged in heated arguments with the top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, when the US military began signing on former Sunni insurgents in the fight against Al Qaeda in Anbar Province in Iraq's west and Diyala province, north of the capital.

Now, Maliki is courting Sunni tribes in the north to join him.

And on Thursday, the prime minister signed a political manifesto, creating a new alliance with the Shi'ite Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and the country's two main Kurdish political parties.

The Supreme Council has its own militia, the Badr Brigade, which is fighting Maliki's erstwhile Mahdi Army clients across Baghdad and in the Shi'ite heartland to the south.

The new overtures illuminate Maliki's fear of a quick US troop withdrawal and his desperation to show progress on political reconciliation before Petraeus and American Ambassador Ryan Crocker report to Congress next month.

US officials in Baghdad and Washington did not immediately signal support for the new political alliance, with a senior diplomat saying its lack of Sunni participation was a significant problem.

But President Jalal Talabani, one of the signers of the new coalition blueprint, appeared puzzled yesterday by the lack of US enthusiasm. "I don't hear any American welcome for the new alliance," he said at a news conference, arguing that the US-backed Iraqi constitution was partly to blame for the political paralysis. He apparently was referring to the complicated apportionment of key positions in government and parliament according to sectarian quotas.

Late Thursday, US troops clashed with suspected Sunni insurgents holed up in a mosque north of Baghdad and launched an air-to-ground Hellfire missile into the structure. One American soldier was killed in the fighting, the military said.