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Followers Of Radical Cleric To Quit Iraqi Cabinet

Updated:
BAGHDAD (AP) _ Radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his followers to withdraw from Iraq's coalition government on Monday, the head of his parliamentary bloc said.

The move, while unlikely to topple Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's regime, would deal a significant blow to the U.S.-backed leader, who relied on support from the Sadrists to gain office.

Al-Sadr's ministers will ``withdraw immediately from the Iraqi government and give the six Cabinet seats to the government, with the hope that they will be given to independents who represent the will of the people,'' said Nassar al-Rubaie, head of al-Sadr's bloc, reading a statement from the cleric.

Al-Sadr, who wields tremendous power among Iraq's majority Shiites, has been upset about recent arrests of his Mahdi Army fighters in the U.S.-led Baghdad security crackdown. He and his followers have also criticized al-Maliki for failing to back calls for a timetable for U.S. troops to leave the country.

Elsewhere, at least 13 Iraqi soldiers were killed Monday when gunmen ambushed their military checkpoint near the northern city of Mosul, police said.

Another four soldiers were wounded in the attack, said police Brig. Saeed Ahmed al-Jibouri, director of Ninevah police.

The ambush occurred around 10 a.m. in the al-Abdaiyah area of Mosul, a mostly Sunni Muslim city 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, he said.

Meanwhile, thousands upset about poor city services marched peacefully through the streets of Iraq's second largest city on Monday, demanding the provincial governor's resignation despite calls by top government officials a day earlier to call off the protest.

Some 3,000 demonstrators gathered near the Basra mosque, then marched a few hundred yards to Gov. Mohammed al-Waili's office, which was surrounded by Iraqi soldiers and police officers. The protest ended without incident a few hours later.

Residents have complained of inadequate electricity, garbage disposal and water supplies in Basra, situated 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.

In Ramadi, U.S. forces killed three Iraqi police officers Monday in a case of friendly fire during a raid targeting al-Qaida in Iraq members, the military said.

The U.S. military issued a statement saying its troops ``coordinated their operation and no Iraqi police were known to be in the area.'' The Americans came under small arms fire and responded, killing three men later identified as Iraqi police officers, the statement said. Another policeman was wounded.

The incident was under investigation, the military said.

Two huge explosions rocked central Baghdad midmorning _ apparently the sound of mortar shells slamming into a schoolyard at Baghdad University, along the Tigris river. No casualties were reported.

But the blasts left residents skittish a day after cars, minibuses and roadside bombs exploded in Shiite Muslim enclaves across the city, killing at least 45 people in sectarian violence that defied the Baghdad security crackdown.

One week ago, al-Sadr mobilized tens of thousands of Iraqis for a peaceful demonstration in two Shiite holy cities, on the fourth anniversary of Baghdad's fall. At the rally, many participants called for such a timetable.

Al-Rubaie, speaking to reporters in Baghdad's heavily-fortified Green Zone, said the Sadrists' withdrawal from the Cabinet was because the prime minister did not respond demands made at last week's demonstration.

Al-Sadr's followers hold six positions in the 37-member Cabinet, and 30 seats in the 275-member parliament. Monday's move would affect only the Cabinet members.

``We will have a major role in working on a timetable in parliament. This will be our message to the government,'' al-Rubaie said. ``Setting a timetable for the withdrawal will be done in parliament.''

Other legislators said the withdrawal was likely to further destabilize al-Maliki's already shaky hold on power.

``The withdrawal will affect the performance of the government, and will weaken it,'' said Abdul-Karim al-Ouneizi, a Shiite legislator from the Dawa Party-Iraq Organization. Al-Ouneizi is from a different branch of the party al-Maliki heads.

All six ministers were expected to hand in resignation letters later Monday.

``I ask God to provide the Iraqi people with an independent government, far from (U.S.) occupation, that does all it can to serve the people,'' the statement said.
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