AMMAN, JORDAN -- The resignation of six allies of radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr from the Iraqi Cabinet could provide an opportunity for the ruling Shiite coalition to broaden its government, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday.
Some critics of the government have suggested that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, should bring more Sunni legislators into his government as a goodwill gesture. Also, Gates said he would like to see al-Maliki use the new vacancies to jump-start the stalled reconciliation process among Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds.
"The impact these resignations have will depend in some measure on who is selected to replace these ministers and their capabilities and whether the vacancies are used in a way that can further advance the reconciliation process," Gates said at a news conference in Amman, Jordan. "There is the opportunity to turn what might be a negative into a positive."
Al-Maliki said yesterday that he would fill the vacant ministries soon with independent technocrats, and said the resignations provide an opportunity to "escape from quotas" based upon sect and ethnicity.
The prime minister also brushed off concerns that his fragile coalition government is losing support from some of the political partners that helped bring him to power.
"The withdrawal does not mean the government is witnessing weakness," al-Maliki told reporters after a Cabinet meeting in Baghdad.
Gates said that he did not know the full meaning of the Sadrists' actions.
"In the intelligence business, we divided all of the information we wanted to know into two categories: secrets and mysteries," Gates said. "I think that [al-Sadr's] motives, at least for me, are a mystery, not a secret."
As the United States has stepped up its military operations in Baghdad, al-Sadr's Mahdi militia has reduced its activity. Some military officers view the decision for the Mahdi militia to "go to ground" as one of the first successes of the American troop buildup, which began in mid-February.
Gates is visiting the Middle East this week in an attempt to build support for the al-Maliki government from other Arab countries. He met today with King Abdullah II, the ruler of Jordan, and said most of the discussion focused on Iraq. He said he hopes the Jordanian and Egyptian governments can pressure al-Maliki and leaders of Iraq's Sunni minority to advance the reconciliation process.
The Iraqi government, dominated by Shiite political parties, has not reformed laws that forced many Sunnis from government jobs. It has also failed to hold provincial elections that could give Sunni-dominated regions a measure of local power, and has not approved a law that would lay out how oil revenue will be shared among the country's ethnic groups. The failure to move on those reforms has angered Sunnis inside and outside Iraq.
Violence continued around the country Tuesday, as roadside bombs, executions and gunbattles left at least 18 dead and 13 wounded.
Police in Ramadi uncovered 17 decomposing corpses buried beneath two schoolyards in a district that until recently was under the control of al-Qaida fighters. At least 85 people were killed or found dead across the country yesterday.
The adult bodies were discovered in the capital of Anbar province after students and teachers returned to the schools a week ago and noticed an increasingly putrid odor and stray dogs digging in the area, Police Maj. Laith al-Dulaimi said.
He said one body had not yet been recovered from a separate burial site behind one of the schools because authorities feared it might be booby-trapped with a bomb.
Ramadi had been a stronghold of Sunni insurgents and al-Qaida fighters until recently, when the U.S. forces in the region and the Iraqi government successfully negotiated with many local tribal leaders to split them off from the more militant insurgent groups.
Thousands of young Sunni men have joined the police force in Anbar province and have taken up the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq, the umbrella organization that includes al-Qaida.
In a sign that Shiite death squads are on the move again after more than two months of quiescence, 25 bodies, most showing signs of torture, were found dumped in Baghdad yesterday. The three-day total, after several weeks of much smaller numbers, was 67. On Monday, the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his six Cabinet ministers to quit the government.
Al-Maliki said his government was talking with some Sunni insurgent groups, including members of Saddam Hussein's former regime, as he struggled to reconcile disaffected and violent bands of fighters.
And in separate attempts to ease sectarian divisions, a group of senior Sunni Muslim clerics visited Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in the holy city of Najaf. They emerged from the meeting and said followers of the two sects were "brothers."
"Everybody's aim is to extinguish the fire of strife in our country. This is our call to everyone," said Sheik Mohammed Talabani, head of the Clerics Association in Kurdistan.
Iraq's Sunni mufti, Sheik Jamaluddin al-Dabban, said al-Sistani sent his regards to all Sunni scholars in the country. "We call for unity," al-Dabban said.
A third cleric from the Kurdish city of Irbil, Sheik Ali al-Khafaji, said: "Our aim is Iraq's unity. There is no difference between Sunnis and Shiites. They are all our brothers."
Sunni clerics have frequently visited al-Sistani in the past. This time they also visited three other top Shiite clerics in Najaf.
Julian E. Barnes and Edmund Sanders write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this story.