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Iranian killed defending Iraqi shrine Sadr joins call for Maliki to quit

DUBAI, July 6, (Agencies): An Iranian pilot was killed defending Shi’ite Muslim holy sites in neighbouring Iraq, Iran’s state news agency said, in the first official report of an Iranian death related to an upsurge in violence there since June. Shoja’at Alamdari Mourjani, who was buried in the Iranian city of Shiraz on Friday, was killed while fighting “takfiri terrorists” in Samarra, north of Baghdad, it said, using a term for Sunni Muslim militant fighters. Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government is fighting an insurgency by Sunni rebels led by an al-Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State.

There was no information in the IRNA report to indicate whether Mourjani was flying aircraft in Samarra, and whether he went there on his own initiative or on behalf of the Iranian state. Shi’ite power Iran has said it will not hesitate to defend Shi’ite holy sites in Iraq if necessary, but it has also said Iraq itself is capable of putting down the rebellion.

The Islamic State group has seized territory across the north and west of Iraq, as well as border posts, oilfields, and the north’s largest city, Mosul, since June 10. Shi’ite militias have also joined the fray on the Baghdad government’s side against the militants. In recent days there has been fighting in Samarra near an important Shi’ite site, the Imam al-Askari shrine.

A 2006 bombing at the same site exacerbated already severe sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites, fuelling a war that killed tens of thousands of people over the next two years. More than 6,000 people have been killed in violence across Iraq this year, as its sectarian balance comes under acute strain from the civil war in neighbouring Syria. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s coalition should withdraw its support for his bid for a third term and pick another candidate, Shi’ite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr urged, amid parliamentary deadlock over the formation of a new government.

Maliki has come under mounting pressure since Islamic State militants took swathes of the north and west of Iraq last month and declared a caliphate on land they and other Sunni armed groups have captured in Iraq and Syria. In a statement published on his website late on Saturday, Sadr said Maliki “has involved himself and us in long security quarrels and big political crises” and suggested that preventing Maliki from serving a third term would be a “welcome step”. “It is necessary to demonstrate the national and paternal spirit by aiming for a higher, wider goal from individuals and blocs and by that I mean changing the candidates,” said Sadr, who gained political influence during the US occupation.

The radical cleric and his political allies had previously advocated the next prime minister should be a Shi’ite chosen from outside of Maliki’s State of Law coalition. “I remain convinced that the brothers in the State of Law coalition must present the candidate for prime minister ... because it is the biggest bloc within the National Alliance,” Sadr said. State of Law is part of the National Alliance, a bloc comprising the country’s biggest Shi’ite parties, including both Maliki’s list and his foes. Dhiya al-Asadi, secretary general of the Al-Ahrar bloc, the Shi’ite political party loyal to Sadr, told Reuters: “We are fine with any State of Law candidate as long as he is not Maliki.”

The United States, Iran, the United Nations and Iraq’s own Shi’ite clerics have called on Iraqi politicians to overcome their differences to face the insurgency. Maliki’s military spokesman Qassim Atta told reporters on Sunday “the security apparatus is working” to analyse a video posted online of a man purporting to be the leader of Islamic State praying at the grand mosque in Mosul. The city is one of those seized by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) last month before the group changed its name and declared its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi caliph, a title held by successors of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH).

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