(AP) — The firebrand Iraqi cleric whose followers are a swing vote in the nation’s ongoing government crisis said Sunday that the prime minister should resign if he cannot produce reforms.
In a rare and wide-ranging press conference, hardline Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr admonished the Shiite-led government, saying it has shut Iraq’s minorities out of power and failed to fix legal systems and other public services.
As a result, and to jumpstart the nation’s all but paralyzed government, al-Sadr said he is prepared to direct his party’s 40 lawmakers to support a no confidence vote against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — so long as he is assured other political blocs in parliament provide the rest of the 163 votes needed.
His declaration delivers a sharp blow to al-Maliki’s efforts to hold on to power. The Shiite prime minister kept his job after 2010 national elections failed to produce a clear winner only with grudging support from al-Sadr, an old nemesis.
“If the head is reformed, everything beyond it is reformed,” al-Sadr said about ways to fix the government.
He added: “I do not support a no confidence vote if it hurts the Iraqi people. But the no confidence is not what has delayed the government from doing its duty.”
An adviser to al-Maliki, Ali al-Moussawi, declined to comment on al-Sadr’s statements.
However, the prime minister’s aides have previously predicted any vote to replace al-Maliki would fall short — as has Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd.
Also Sunday, an Iraqi press freedom group condemned authorities for ordering the closure of 44 news organizations, including a U.S.-funded radio station. The country’s media commission said it was only targeting unlicensed operations.
No media outlet is reported to have been forced to close so far. But critics say al-Maliki, whom they accuse of sidelining and silencing opponents in order to consolidate his Shiite party’s power, is sending a warning to the media.
The dispute calls into question the future of Iraq’s fledgling democracy, nine years after the ouster of Saddam Hussein and six months after the last of the U.S. troops who overthrew him withdrew.
Ziyad al-Aajely, head of the Journalistic Freedoms Observatory, called the move to shut down media offices “a setback to the freedom of journalism in Iraq.”
“It is a government message to the media outlets that if you are not with us, then you are against us,” he said by telephone.
The list, which officials say was compiled a month ago, only became public on Sunday.
Most of the 44 newspapers, radio and television stations targeted for shutdown are Iraqi, although foreign broadcasters including the BBC and Voice of America were on the list as well as the U.S.-funded Radio Sawa. The BBC and Voice of America have already closed most permanent news operations in Iraq.
Safaa Rabie, the head of Iraq’s Communications and Media Commission, said the commission only seeks to close offices without an operating license. He confirmed the commission had forwarded the list to the Ministry of Interior seeking help in shutting the offices down.
“It is an organizational matter, not a crackdown on the press,” Rabie said.
However, one broadcaster targeted for shutdown, U.S.-funded Radio Sawa, says it does have a license.
“We were surprised to see our radio station on the list because we think that we work in accordance with all Iraqi laws,” Sawa deputy director Salah Nasrawi said.
Radio Sawa — operated by Middle East Broadcasting Networks, Inc., which is funded by the U.S. Congress — was broadcasting normally on Sunday.
By Lara Jakes
Associated Press writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.