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Iraq's Sunnis Rethink Strategy

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Another victory that Iraqi voters might achieved..

Iraqi politicians 1 are realizing that the voice of people should be respected and they need to work together.




Iraq's Sunnis Rethink Strategy


Sat Feb 5,12:00 AM ET




By Anthony Shadid, Washington Post Foreign Service


BAGHDAD, Feb. 4 -- Influential Sunni Arab leaders of a boycott of last Sunday's elections expressed a new willingness Friday to engage the coming Iraqi government and play a role in writing the constitution, in what may represent a strategic shift in thinking among mainstream anti-occupation groups.


The signs remain tentative, and even advocates of such change suggest that much will depend on the posture the new government takes toward the insurgency and the removal of former Baath Party officials from state institutions. But in statements and interviews, some Sunni leaders said the sectarian tension that surged ahead of the vote had forced them to rethink their stance.


Iraqis voted Sunday for seats in a 275-member transitional parliament, which will appoint the government and draft the constitution this year. In all likelihood, the parliament will be dominated by members of the country's Shiite Arab majority and by ethnic Kurdish Sunnis from northern Iraq (news - web sites), leaving Sunni Arabs and others who oppose the presence of foreign troops in Iraq with little representation.


"We are taking a conciliatory line because we are frightened that things may develop into a civil war," said Wamidh Nadhmi, the leader of the Arab Nationalist Trend and a spokesman for a coalition of Sunni and Shiite groups that boycotted the election. "The two sides have come to a conclusion that they have to respect the other side if they want a unified Iraq."


He cautioned, however, that "perhaps it will not succeed."


The Association of Muslim Scholars, one of the most influential groups, sent mixed signals this week -- saying it would respect the election results, while arguing that the new government will lack the legitimacy to draft a constitution. But the sermon Friday at the association's headquarters, the Um al-Qura mosque, was decidedly conciliatory. Directing most of his words at the new government, the preacher called Iraq its "trusteeship" and said the people's welfare was "a great responsibility on your shoulders."


A meeting Thursday at the home of a Sunni elder statesman that brought together some largely Sunni groups, including those that boycotted the elections, produced an agreement to participate in drafting the constitution, "without condition," said Nadhmi, one of those in attendance. A spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party, which withdrew from Sunday's vote but still was listed on the ballot, said its members would not enter parliament but that the party would not object if independent candidates who were included on its list took seats.


"We're getting the same vibes," a Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.


"It's my sense that there are a number of people in the Sunni community that are trying to build consensus in that community that . . . participation in the political process would be to the best advantage of the Sunni Arab community," the diplomat said.


A decision by Sunni Muslim and other anti-occupation groups to engage the new government and help draft the constitution would mark one of the most important shifts in Iraq since Saddam Hussein (news - web sites)'s fall in April 2003. In the subsequent 22 months, the country's tumultuous politics have often broken down between groups willing to take part in a U.S.-led process and those opposed to participation as long as the U.S. military occupied the country. While the opponents largely came from the Sunni minority, long the country's most powerful sect, they also included followers of a militant Shiite Muslim cleric, Moqtada Sadr.


The shift in thinking appears to have arisen from a calculation that the election may have created a new dynamic in Iraq, as the country slowly moves past an emphasis on the U.S. occupation and more toward the blueprint of a future state. The groups do not speak for the insurgency, but the Association of Muslim Scholars, in particular, holds great sway in the Sunni Arab community in central and western Iraq, where there are signs of grass-roots discontent over the boycott.


As part of the dialogue, the community appears to be formulating concrete political demands that were often missing before. Those demands center on the presence of 150,000 U.S. troops in the country and the date of their departure.


"What we're asking for is a conditional timetable," said Ayad Samarrai, a spokesman for the Iraqi Islamic Party.


"It's not rigid and it's not impossible to achieve," he said at the party's headquarters, echoing statements made this week by the Association of Muslim Scholars and Nadhmi's group. "We take into consideration that some delay might happen, but at least if we have a plan, we can have the confidence of the people that we are working toward this goal."


Officials with Sadr's movement took a similar stand Friday in Kufa, the group's headquarters in southern Iraq.


"I call for all those who backed the elections to demand a formal schedule for the withdrawal of foreign forces," said a spokesman, Hashim Abu Raghif, reading a statement in the name of Sadr, who has rarely appeared since fighting ended in August between his militia and U.S. forces. "They asked to hold the elections, and they were answered. So let them end the occupation."


U.S. officials and their Iraqi allies have refused to set a time for a withdrawal, saying they instead want to wait until Iraqi security forces can enforce order. Given the uneven track record of the freshly trained forces, the officials have been loath to set a deadline.


"I just don't think right now that the American government wants to get in the business of time frames," the diplomat said. "Better not to make promises that you are not sure that you can keep."


The results of Sunday's election may not be complete until next week, but a list backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's most influential religious leader, has made the strongest early showing. While diverse, the list is anchored by two avowedly Islamic parties: the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and factions grouped under the Dawa party.


Both Shiite parties have sent conciliatory signals in recent weeks, urging the widest possible participation in the constitution's drafting and playing down the role of the Shiite clergy in the coming government.


But the agenda of the Supreme Council, in particular, sits uneasily with many Sunni leaders, who fear the group is beholden to neighboring Iran and who recoil at its often explicitly sectarian rhetoric. (Often, Sunni Arabs are reluctant to identify themselves as such, framing their words in nationalist rather than religious terms.) In Baratha mosque, loyal to the Supreme Council, the prayer leader on Friday ridiculed the Association of Muslim Scholars and compared its brand of Islam to "Saddam Hussein's Islam."


Samarrai and others said they were already worried by other statements of candidates on the Sistani-backed list, who began jockeying for positions in the government even before the election was held. Their biggest concerns: that a Shiite militia loyal to the Supreme Council would enter the government's fledgling security forces and that the process of weeding out former Baathists would be stepped up.


"Worse or better depends on the policy of the next government," Samarrai said.


"That will be the end of it," Nadhmi said in an interview. "There would be no reconciliation."


In part, the Sunni and nationalist groups may be playing to their own constituencies. By all accounts, the Sunni turnout was far lower than that of Shiites and Kurds, although Sunni leaders debate whether that was a result of intimidation or adherence to calls for a boycott. But some residents in such Sunni towns as Ramadi and Tikrit have suggested there may be regrets over the choice. The disappointment seems strongest in urban areas, which have proved less sympathetic to the insurgency than the countryside.


The insurgents "made fools of us," said Mahmoud Ghasoub, a businessman in Baiji, a restive northern town. "They voted to disrupt the elections but failed. Now we have lost both tracks. We did not vote, nor did they disrupt the elections."


Mohammed Hayawi, 41, a bookseller in Baghdad, voiced similar sentiments, even though he voted. As a nationalist, he said, he resents the American occupation and remains baffled at the lack of electricity almost two years after Hussein's fall.


"The ballot box was for America," said Hayawi, who voted for the party of Adnan Pachachi, a former foreign minister. "I know I was being hypocritical. But there was no other choice. The future of Iraq is a line that goes through the occupation. If you asked me why I was voting, it's because I want to find something to pull me out of this mud."


He paused, then added: "Maybe this is the rope that will save us."


Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Kufa, Salih Saif Aldin in Tikrit and Bassam Sebti in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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