ARBIL, Iraq — Powerful Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr arrived in Iraq's Kurdistan region on Thursday, presenting himself as a mediator in a crisis between Iraq's premier and the region's president.
Tensions are high between the autonomous region's president, Massud Barzani, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whom Barzani has accused of moving toward dictatorship.
"I met Nuri al-Maliki in Tehran, and I came to listen to the opinion of the Kurdish leaders and their views," Sadr told a news conference at Arbil airport, after arriving on a private plane from Tehran.
"Everyone should look out for the public interest and the unity of the Iraqi people, and I hope that everyone will be responsible," he said.
Sadr then presented a list of 18 points that he wants to discuss with Kurdish leaders.
"Minorities are an important part of Iraq, and we have to bring them to participate in building Iraq, politically, economically and in security," Sadr said, also calling for "cancelling the policy of neglect and marginalisation."
Another point is that "we have to work to support the Iraqi government by bringing all the components of the Iraqi people inside it," he said.
And "we have to give priority to Iraqi interests over sectarian and ethnic and party interests."
Sadr also said "we have to end the issue of the security posts," meaning that permanent ministers of security and defence must be appointed.
And "we have to stand strongly against any internal or foreign threats against any component of the Iraqi people," he said.
Fuad Hussein, head of the office of the presidency in Kurdistan, said this was "a historic visit, and it will lead to the expansion and strengthening of the relationship between Kurdistan and all Iraq."
"It will also lead to more stability in the political situation in the country," he told journalists at the airport.
Sadr, who spends most of his time on religious studies in Iran, "will meet Barzani today, and there is a significant possibility that he will go to Najaf after finishing his meetings in Kurdistan," a Sadr source told AFP.
Najaf is the Shiite holy city where Sadr's main office is located, and where he spent much of his life.
Sadr spokesman Salah al-Obeidi earlier told a news conference in Baghdad that the cleric had accepted an invitation to visit Kurdistan, saying "the crisis needs such a move to resolve the situation."
He added that "the sayyid (Sadr) is trying to put Al-Ahrar (his parliamentary bloc) and himself personally in the middle."
"One of the goals of the visit is to solve the crisis," Obeidi said.
Barzani said on April 22 that he opposes the sale of F-16 warplanes to Iraq while Maliki is premier, as he fears they would be used against Kurdistan.
Barzani had previously accused Maliki of moving toward dictatorship, and said the premier aimed to "kill the democratic process" after the head of Iraq's electoral commission was arrested for alleged corruption.
Earlier this month, Kurdistan stopped oil exports over more than $1.5 billion (1.13 billion euros) it said is owed to foreign oil companies working in the region, that Baghdad has allegedly withheld.
The central government's top two oil officials responded by saying Arbil owed Baghdad more than $5 billion in promised exports, and was smuggling the oil it produced to Iran.
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