BAGHDAD, Iraq – An important Sunni cleric urged Iraq's new president Friday to buck U.S. pressure and free thousands of suspected rebels, a sign the religious group most often associated with the Iraqi insurgency might be willing to work with the new government.
But there was no letup in violence, as militants set off four bombs that killed at least two civilians and wounded 14 in Baghdad, capping a bloody week of attacks and clashes.
Also Friday, Ukraine began withdrawing some of its 1,462 soldiers from Iraq amid plans to have them all out by year's end, the U.S. military said. It said the Ukrainian force would be down to 900 soldiers by May 12.
If President "Jalal Talabani (search) wants to begin a new page, he must first release those in jail. Secondly, there must be a full pardon," Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samarrai, a cleric in the influential Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, said during Friday prayers.
He also urged Talabani to refuse to "obey and kneel to pressure from" U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search). The United States has opposed freeing prisoners or pardoning insurgents.
It remains unclear how much say Talabani will have in his largely ceremonial post. Prime Minister-designate Ibrahim al-Jaafari (search) is putting together a Cabinet and it isn't known if the new government backs a pardon.
Al-Samarrai's comments came three days after Rumsfeld made a surprise visit to Iraq and urged the emerging government to avoid politicizing the Iraqi military.
After he was sworn in as president this month, Talabani appealed to Iraq's homegrown militants to work with the newly elected leadership and suggested they could be pardoned, although he said the Iraqi government would continue to fight foreign insurgents.
"We must find political and peaceful solutions with those duped Iraqis who have been involved in terrorism and pardon them, and invite them to join the democratic process," Talabani said after his inauguration. "But we must firmly counter and isolate the criminal terrorism that's imported from abroad."
Most of the 10,500 detainees are held by the U.S. military, and some lawmakers have said the new president is just expressing his opinion.
Still, Talabani and other members of the new government are reaching out to Iraq's Sunni minority, which was the dominant group under Saddam Hussein and is believed to be the backbone of the insurgency.
Many Sunnis, who make up 15 percent to 20 percent of Iraq's 26 million people — boycotted the Jan. 30 elections or stayed home for fear of attacks at the polls.
In Rome, Iraqi UN envoy Ashraf Qazi said the Sunnis must be included in drafting a new constitution, because all segments of the population must participate for the political process to succeed. This will also help quell the insurgency, he told reporters.
The comments by al-Samarrai were the latest signs that his organization, which has been alleged to have links to insurgents, is responding to the new government. Two weeks ago, he instructed his followers to begin joining Iraqi security forces.
There have been growing calls to deal with the detained Iraqis. Outgoing interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi this week sent a message to the U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, asking him to review the prisoners' cases.
In a political development, the office of Iraq's most influential Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said he doesn't want leading Shiite lawmakers to take posts in the Cabinet so they can focus on the National Assembly's main task of writing a constitution.
Al-Sistani has largely stayed out of politics, but Friday's comment was a sign he may take a greater role. The Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance's 140 seats make it the biggest bloc in the 275-member assembly.
A suicide car bomb exploded near Baghdad's airport, killing one person and injuring five, police said. It targeted a local police commander who escaped unharmed.
Another car bomb exploded near a U.S. convoy in the city's western Mansour district, damaging a Humvee and injuring six people, including a U.S. soldier.
A Web statement from Al-Qaida in Iraq said it staged the blast, which was the latest in a string of attacks on U.S. targets this week that the terrorist group claimed responsibility for.
A bomb also exploded in an eastern Baghdad neighborhood where U.S. troops were on patrol, killing one civilian and wounding three, police said. A fourth blast in the city didn't appear to cause any injuries, Capt. Talib Thamir said.
Hours after a video was aired early Friday on al-Jazeera satellite television showing a Pakistani Embassy official kidnapped in Baghdad, Pakistan's government urged the man's captors to release him. Officials confirmed the tape showed Malik Mohammed Javed, who disappeared a week ago after leaving to attend prayers at a mosque near his Baghdad home.
— At Camp Bucca in southeastern Iraq, a melee among prisoners resulted in the death of one detainee and injuries to a dozen, the military said Friday. It said investigators were trying to determine what set off the brawl late Thursday. The camp is the largest U.S. detention center in Iraq, holding 6,000 prisoners.
— Lebanon's Al-Hayat LBC channel aired a short videotape showing an Iraqi soldier it said was decapitated by members of al-Qaida in Iraq. The station didn't air audio of the tape, but said the man, wearing a military uniform, identified himself as Jassim Mohammed Hussein. The tape could not be independently verified.