Baghdad: Iraq`s Prime Minister on Saturday called the international crackdown on Libya`s Muammar Gaddafi "selective”, chastising foreign forces for singling out one oppressive Mideast regime without helping peaceful protesters in others.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite Muslim, made clear he was not advocating widespread use of military force in response to the unrest sweeping the region. But the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government has been frustrated with the West`s hands-off approach to the crackdown in Bahrain, where Shi’ite protesters are challenging a Sunni-led leadership closely allied with Washington.
"Whatever decision is made on Libya should be applied on any government that suppresses its people with iron and fire," al-Maliki said. "The process should not be selective. ... I want the international community to be fair, just and equal about all the areas in which peoples are suppressed."
Iraq supported the Arab League`s call for a no-fly zone over Libya, which led to a UN Security Council resolution authorising airstrikes to protect Libyan civilians at risk from Gaddafi`s forces. On Saturday, al-Maliki affirmed that stance, saying nations should not interfere with others` internal disputes unless there is widespread international consensus to do so.
That was a veiled slap at Sunni-led governments in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which sent military forces to Bahrain to help shore up the government after weeks of sometimes violent confrontations.
Al-Maliki listed Bahrain among Mideast nations — including Syria and Egypt — where the demands of peaceful protesters should be heeded.
"I stand against violent confrontation against any peaceful uprising that is calling for rights whether in Bahrain, or Syria or Libya or Egypt or in any other country and in Iraq in particular," he said.
It was a reconciliatory tone aimed at his public after six weeks of protests across Iraq, some of which have turned deadly. None of the demonstrations have reached the fervour of the uprisings that toppled governments in Egypt and Tunisia and have challenged the national leadership in Yemen, Syria and Jordan.
But in the semiautonomous Kurdish region in Iraq`s north, 49 demonstrators were being held on Saturday after an estimated 2,000 anti-government protesters clashed with security officials in Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles (260 kilometres) northeast of Baghdad. Witnesses said security forces severely beat some protesters who were throwing rocks at riot police.
Al-Maliki`s fears about Bahrain stoking regional violence also were underscored by a statement issued on Saturday by a hardcore Shi’ite militia vowing to launch new attacks against US forces in Iraq. The statement by the League of the Righteous, which is linked to anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, claimed responsibility for the recent rocketing of US bases in southern Iraq, and said it "will continue striking the occupation forces to gain the victory for the religion and as a revenge for the bloodshed of our people in Bahrain”.
Al-Maliki has said he fears the sectarian tension in Bahrain could trigger Shi’ite-Sunni violence across the region. Iraq is especially vulnerable because it just managed to curb years of sectarian killings that brought the nation to the brink of civil war.
US forces are set to withdraw from Iraq by the end of the year under a security agreement between both nations. Al-Maliki maintained in the interview that he sees no need to change the agreement but said he would leave that decision to Parliament if lawmakers vote to keep them.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, US Ambassador to Iraq James F Jeffrey acknowledged Iraq`s frustration with the American response to Bahrain but said the protests there were an internal issue that should be settled by the kingdom`s government.
"Our focus is that this is an issue that should be taken care of by the Bahrainis," Jeffrey told reporters. "And it is taken care of on the basis of dialogue, engagement, no violence on either side, and work toward a more democratic and free system."
In Iraq, al-Maliki has swiftly moved to stem unrest by promising to purge his government of corruption and dysfunction and provide more electricity and better services to the public. He predicted on Saturday that his government will survive a 100-day test he imposed on his Cabinet ministers to enact reforms or be fired.
The issue is seen as a bellwether sign of whether the government will hold together in the face of protests or be scrapped like those in Iraq`s neighbours.
However, al-Maliki opened several escape clauses for his ministers should they fail to meet the June 07 deadline. He said he would allow another 100 days for some officials who are moving to enact reforms but haven`t yet gotten them done. Their performances will be judged by a committee that al-Maliki has appointed.
And al-Maliki sidestepped questions about whether he would also step down if his government is deemed to have fallen short of demands for change. Pressed, al-Maliki would only say that his government would cease to exist if it failed.