BAGHDAD – Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appealed to millions of Shiite Muslims Thursday to reconcile their differences and boost the country's fragile political process in a speech marking a major religious holiday.
The Iraqi leader, who is Shiite, painted a somewhat rosy picture of the situation in Iraq, saying the country had achieved stability and overcome sectarian strife, although he acknowledged the persistent violence in northern Iraq.
"National reconciliation efforts have succeeded in Iraq and the Iraqis have once again become loving brothers," he said in a speech broadcast live on television. "We have ended the security instability and we have to chase Al Qaeda elements in other places such as Mosul, Diyala and Kirkuk in order to finish the battle for good so that we can concentrate on the reconstruction phase."
Al-Maliki, addressing the crowds below from a raised podium in the holy city of Karbala, said it would be "the year of construction and services" and he called on all Iraqis to work to bring the country closer together.
"I affirm the necessity of pushing the political process, boosting security and the economy and combating corruption. ... We should be united and keep away from personal interests in order to face the greater challenges and achieve final victory," al-Maliki said.
The speech came a day after Iraq's presidential council rejected a measure setting up provincial elections and sent it back to parliament for reworking — the latest setback to U.S.-backed national reconciliation efforts.
The Bush administration has sought passage of a provincial powers law as one of 18 benchmarks to promote reconciliation among Iraq's Sunni and Shiite Arab communities and the large Kurdish minority.
The parliamentary bloc loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr sharply criticized the decision to refer the measure back to parliament, saying the members of the presidential council were allowing their personal political affiliations jeopardize the national interest.
"We are suffering a new wave aimed at the destruction of a new Iraqi national law (that) could fracture the country's unity and replace it with laws based on sectarian and political motivations," Sadrist lawmaker Nassar al-Rubaie said.
He expressed concern that Iraq was shifting from a period of sectarian violence to "a period of chaos and corruption."
Millions of pilgrims flooded the streets of Karbala, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Baghdad, on Thursday to mark Arbaeen, the end of a 40-day mourning period following the anniversary of the seventh-century death of Imam Hussein, one of Shiite Muslims' most revered figures.
Karbala provincial Gov. Aqil al-Khazali estimated that the main procession in Karbala drew some 9 million pilgrims including 80,000 foreigners. The U.S. military has said 6 million pilgrims traveled for the holiday.
Fears of violence continued to plague the gathering though after at least 64 people were slain in assaults over the past few days, 56 of them in a suicide bombing that struck a roadside refreshment tent packed with worshippers.
The U.S. military blamed Sunni-led Al Qaeda in Iraq for the bombing, which seemed aimed at provoking sectarian violence. Shiite religious festivals have been targeted repeatedly in the past few years.
No injuries or deaths were reported Thursday. Police chief Raid Shakir Jawdat, commander of Karbala's security operations, said a man with an explosive belt was arrested near a checkpoint outside the city.
The pilgrims had to endure several checkpoints along the route, but some said they did not mind because a sense of security allowed them to make the trip.
Hassan al-Wahid, 32, who traveled from the United Arab Emirates, said that "it was a dream to visit Karbala, but now the dream is real and improvement in the situation in Iraq is so obvious."
Meanwhile, the U.S. military said Thursday that troops killed an Iraqi civilian who raised suspicion and failed to heed warnings to stop as he approached their foot patrol north of Baghdad.
The man, who was wearing a bulky jacket and his hands in his pockets, was killed Wednesday in an area around Muqdadiyah, about 90 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad, according to a statement.
Iraqi police in Diyala province, where Muqdadiyah is located, said the slain man was elderly and suffered from mental disabilities and hearing problems. The police, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information, said the killing occurred in a market.
The U.S. military said it did not have any reports indicating the man who was killed was mentally disabled.
In a separate incident, the military said a young Iraqi man that may have been mentally disabled was shot and wounded after he ran toward a patrol Thursday in Tahrir, another Diyala town.
Maj. Daniel J. Meyers, a U.S. military spokesman in northern Iraq, said the patrol warned the man to stop but fired at him when he did not.
Also in Baghdad, about 200 mourners attended a funeral for the head of the Iraqi Journalists' Union, Shihab al-Timimi, who died Wednesday four days after being ambushed by gunmen in Baghdad.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said "his death serves as a stark reminder of the dangers journalists face daily in Iraq."