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UN Envoy Meets With Iraq's Top Shiite Cleric

Seeking Political Inclusiveness, UN Envoy Meets With Iraq's Top Shiite Cleric

The senior United Nations envoy for Iraq has met with the country's top Shiite Muslim cleric as he begins his ninth week of intensive consultations to ensure that all elements of Iraqi society take part in writing a new constitution after Sunni Arabs largely stayed away from January's elections.

In his talks yesterday with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf, Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Representative Ashraf Qazi discussed means of furthering national reconciliation among Iraq's different political constituencies and stressed the importance of increasing mutual confidence through dialogue.

"Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani told me he was a religious man and not a political one and he did not get involved except when necessary, particularly during periods of crisis," Mr. Qazi told reporters afterwards, adding that he had come to seek the cleric's advice.

Hardly a day has gone by since the 30 January elections for the Transitional National Assembly, which will write the new constitution and organize fresh elections, that the envoy has not met with one sector or other in an effort to forge an inclusive process for the country's political transition - often with several parties on the same day.

By not voting in the elections, either due to boycott calls, intimidation or fear of violence, Sunni Arabs have very little presence in the Assembly. Shiite Arabs, who voted enthusiastically, represent about 60 per cent of the electorate, while Sunni Arabs and mainly Sunni Kurds, who also turned out en masse, represent about 20 per cent each.

>From Mr. Annan downwards, UN officials have been stressing the absolute need for all sectors be brought into the next stage, including writing the constitution.

"Failure to engage in a national dialogue and reconciliation could bring strife far more damaging that the compromises necessary for reaching a national consensus achieved through peaceful means," the Secretary-General warned in his latest report on Iraq released earlier this month.

"It will be important that the new Iraqi leadership signal clearly that all Iraqis will have the opportunity, and are encouraged, to participate fully in the process," he added.

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