BAGHDAD (AP) – One of Iraq’s most powerful Shiite political and religious figures on Friday issued a stunning call for the government to set aside differences with Sunni Muslim politicians and entice them back to help lead the country.

The appeal by Ammar al-Hakim, the son and heir-apparent to the head of Iraq’s main Shiite political bloc, sharply increased pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to bring Sunni factions back into the fold as part of Washington-backed efforts at sectarian reconciliation.

It also could push al-Maliki’s government to accelerate steps to integrate armed Sunni groups that have joined the fight against al-Qaida in Iraq and other extremists. The United States has credited the so-called “Awakening Councils” with helping uproot insurgents and has urged Iraq’s Shiite leadership to reward the new Sunni allies with security force posts.

A top U.S. commander said Thursday’s bombing blitz south of Baghdad destroyed extremists’ “defensive belts” and allowed American soldiers to push into areas where they have not been in years.

The United States is also counting on political support from al-Hakim and his father, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council – the country’s pre-eminent Shiite political grouping.

The elder al-Hakim, who has been a close ally of the United States since the 2003 invasion underwent chemotherapy for lung cancer last year in Iran, where he spent years in exile during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Ammar al-Hakim, a moderate Shiite like his father, has taken an increasingly vocal role.

as his father has undergone medical care.

“I hope that the government will take all needed measures to secure” the return of key Sunni political groups, Ammar al-Hakim said from the pulpit of the Buratha mosque. The main Sunni political organization – the Accordance Front – and the secular Iraqi List left the government after disputes over al-Maliki’s leadership.

But in a bid to address both sides of Iraq’s Sunni-Shiite sectarian split, al-Hakim also said al-Maliki needs to reach out to “our brothers” in two Shiite parties that are deeply at odds with the prime minister. One is the religious Fadhilah party and the other is the powerful movement led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Rival Shiite groups have waged increasingly bloody power struggles for pre-eminence in oil-rich southern Iraq.

“Our strength is in our unity. The bigger the circle of participation, the stronger we will be in solving our problems and making progress,” al-Hakim said.

As violence falls in Iraq, politics and reconciliation efforts push to the front. The United States introduced 30,000 additional troops into Iraq by the middle of last year with the objective of calming raging violence so the al-Maliki government could gain breathing space to foster common ground among the majority Shiite, Sunnis and Kurds.

But there is little public evidence that al-Maliki has or is inclined to use the increasingly peaceful environment to move ahead politically.

Al-Hakim’s pointed words Friday echoed frustration being voiced by many in Iraq and the United States over what appears to be foot-dragging by al-Maliki and the country’s fractured parliament to adopt reforms aimed at bridging sectarian rifts.

“I call on lawmakers to speed the passage of key legislation. There can be no more delays,” he said, referring to measures on sharing Iraq’s oil wealth, regional elections and the return of Saddam-era figures to the government.

A U.S.-led military offensive, meanwhile, sought to reclaim control of former insurgent-held areas around Baghdad.

In the massive raid south of the capital, two B1-B bombers and four F-16 fighter jets dropped 48 precision-guided bombs on 47 targets, U.S. Air Force Col. Peter Donnelly, commander of the 18th Expeditionary Air Support Operations Group, told reporters.

The targets consisted mainly of weapons caches and powerful roadside bombs buried deep underground – key defensive elements for al-Qaida in Iraq insurgents, said Donnelly and Army Col. Terry Ferrell, commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division.

Extremists were believed to have controlled Arab Jabour, a Sunni district lined with citrus groves, but Ferrell said “the predominant number” have now fled to the southwest since his troops’ operations began.

“We’re moving into areas where coalition forces have not been in months or years in some cases,” Ferrell told reporters via a video link, adding that insurgents “had established a deliberate defensive belt to deny our movement in the area.”

Ferrell said the southwest is “where we take this fight to next. It is all about fighting the enemy where the enemy wants to go.”

As U.S. and Iraqi ground forces move through areas to push out insurgents, Ferrell said members of the Awakening Council movement will be relied upon to stabilize the region and maintain security.

It was those Sunni fighters, Ferrell said, who largely provided the intelligence that allowed U.S. forces to locate the targets destroyed in Thursday’s bombing.

Despite the massive size of the airstrikes, Donnelly said that – to the military’s knowledge – no civilians were killed. That could not immediately be independently confirmed. He added that the targeting of three targets was called off because unmanned surveillance planes showed civilians in those areas.

Donnelly said it wasn’t yet known how many insurgents were killed in the attacks.

But Mustapha Kamil Shibeeb al-Jibouri, leader of Arab Jabour’s Awakening Council, said the airstrikes killed at least 21 al-Qaida militants including a group leader.

“Their bodies are still in the area. They have not been evacuated yet,” he told The Associated Press.

Separately, the military announced that Faleh Mansour Hussain, the Sunni chairman of the Yarmouk Neighborhood Council in Baghdad, was killed in a car bombing Tuesday.

“Attacks on civilians like this are done by those who are trying to prevent the peace and stability Iraqi citizens deserve,” said military spokesman Maj. J. Frank Garcia.

Associated Press Writers Bradley Brooks and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.

AP-ES-01-11-08 1549EST

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