BAGHDAD A top Shiite politician on Thursday acknowledged the contribution of U.S.-backed Sunni Arab groups to the decline in violence across Iraq and called for their use in the continuing fight against al-Qaida.
Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim's praise for the role of the groups, many of which had fought U.S. and Iraq's Shiite-dominated security forces before switching sides last year, runs contrary to the hardline position recently taken by Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki's government.
The government last month said it will disband the groups, known as Awakening Councils in some regions and Concerned Local Citizens in others, after restive areas are calmed. It said it did not want them to be a separate military force and would not allow them to have any infrastructure, such as offices.
The Sunni militias, more than 70,000-strong, have been credited by American commanders as being instrumental in what they say is a nearly 60 percent reduction in violence in the last six months. It also was affected by the dispatch of additional U.S. troops and a six-month cease-fire declared in August by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia.
But al-Maliki's government has been deeply uneasy about the potential for the Sunni fighters now better organized and armed to switch sides again, posing a threat to stability and the Shiite domination that followed the ouster of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime.
However, al-Hakim, head of parliament's largest bloc and the country's most powerful political party, was conciliatory in his comments Thursday, although his praise for the Sunni groups was moderate and he did not say whether their future role should be permanent.
Noting the decline in violence, he said the credit should go to the role played by the groups, adding: "We still believe in the necessity of continuing with this strategy."
"Today, we are witnessing the decline of terrorism and the progress of reconciliation on the popular level with Sunni-Shiite solidarity," he said, alluding to the government's perceived failure to achieve political reconciliation between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish groups.
Al-Hakim, who was diagnosed with cancer last year but has been in relatively good health after chemotherapy treatment in Iran, spoke to supporters in the holy city of Najaf.
He has long called for the use of "popular" forces in the fight against insurgents, but these calls were generally understood to mean giving Shiite militias a free rein in taking on the Sunni insurgents, many of whom have now switched allegiances and are fighting alongside U.S. and Iraqi forces.
He said Thursday that the recent security successes were "in some part" based on the strategy he has long advocated. Still, his call for the continued use of the Sunni groups appeared designed to limit the damage caused by the government's hardline stance on the morale of the Sunni fighters or its likely impact on their loyalty to the anti-al-Qaida in Iraq cause.
Some of the Sunni groups have said they wanted a security role beyond their localities, while others have made no secret of their political ambitions.
Al-Hakim's take on the Sunni groups was not the only hint of his displeasure with the performance of the 19-month-old al-Maliki government, of which al-Hakim's Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, or SIIC, is a major partner.
He subtly admonished the government for not doing enough to improve the lot of Iraq's poor or fight widespread corruption in government.
"The government must look for expertise and competence when it fills official posts," he said. "I am here repeating my earlier calls on the government to pay attention to the poor classes and ... low income employees."
He also called on the government to speed up the reconstruction of a major Shiite shrine bombed in 2006 and 2007.
The government has repeatedly said it was determined to rebuild the shrine, but there has been little progress since the second bombing brought down the shrine's two minarets in June.
Al-Hakim also criticized the government for not doing more to ensure the safe return of Iraqis displaced by the wave of sectarian cleansing that followed the February 2006 bombing of the shrine in Samarra north of Baghdad.
He also appeared to place the blame on the Shiite al-Maliki for not resolving differences with Sunni and Shiite political groups that had withdrawn from his government last year or filling up the Cabinet posts made vacant by their pullout.
Al-Hakim's views carry significant weight in Iraq, where Shiites are thought to account for 65 percent of the population and his SIIC has 30 of parliament's 275 seats.
Meanwhile, at least five people were killed in two separate attacks in Baghdad on Thursday, one targeting a local member of the prime minister's party, police said.
Three people were killed and 11 wounded when a bomb planted at the house of a local member of the Dawa party exploded at dawn in a Shiite-dominated area of southeastern Baghdad, a police official said on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The party member, whom police did not name, was not at home when the bomb exploded. Among the dead was a man, a 13-year-old boy and a woman who was in a house next door.
In the Shiite-dominated New Baghdad neighborhood in the eastern part of the city, two street sweepers were killed when a roadside bomb exploded around 7 a.m., police said. At least four others were wounded in the incident.One woman was killed and another civilian wounded when a rocket slammed into the primarily Shiite neighborhood of Washash in northwest Baghdad, police said. At least two houses were damaged.
Associated Press writer Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.