Top Shiite Welcomes Overtures By Sunnis

Posted in Iraq | 06-Feb-05 | Author: Anthony Shadid and Doug Struck| Source: Washington Post

Iraqi Candidate Sets Conciliatory Tone As Violence Picks Up

AGHDAD, Feb. 5 -- The leading Shiite candidate to become Iraq's next prime minister welcomed overtures on Saturday by groups that boycotted national elections and declared that he and others were willing to offer "the maximum" to bring those largely Sunni Arab groups into the drafting of the constitution and participation in the new government.

But Adel Abdel-Mehdi, the current finance minister and a powerful figure in the coalition expected to dominate Iraq's parliament, rejected a key demand of those groups -- a timetable for a withdrawal of the 150,000 U.S. troops in the country.

"We are hearing some positive remarks coming from their side. That's very good. We are encouraging them," he said in an interview. "We are really willing to offer the maximum. . . . It's a balanced view -- from them, from us -- to see what the future has."

The conciliatory remarks came during one of the bloodiest days since Sunday's elections, with a spate of drive-by shootings, roadside mine explosions, clashes and kidnappings. Two American soldiers were killed by a mine explosion Friday night in Baiji, about 120 miles north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said Saturday. In the worst reported bloodshed, an insurgent group posted video footage on its Web site showing the slaying of seven members of the Iraqi National Guard, a pillar of the country's fledgling security forces.

But Abdel-Mehdi's comments were the latest to suggest a departure from the escalating political tension, much of it assuming a sectarian cast, that mirrored the insurgency and preceded Iraq's parliamentary elections. Many Sunni Arabs stayed away from the polls, crystallizing the divide between groups that engaged in the U.S.-backed process and those opposed to it while U.S. troops occupy the country.

Beginning this week, however, influential figures among Sunni and anti-occupation factions signaled their willingness to take part in the process that has followed the election, a recognition by some that the vote may have created a new dynamic. The Association of Muslim Scholars, one of the most powerful groups, has said it would abide by the results of the ballot, even if it viewed the government as lacking legitimacy. Thirteen parties, including a representative of the association and other parties that boycotted the vote, agreed Thursday to take part in the drafting of the constitution, which will be the parliament's main task.

"We should respect the choice of the Iraqi people," said Tariq Hashemi, the secretary general of the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party, which withdrew from the election but which was still listed on the ballot.

The "drafting of the constitution is a very important issue for all Iraqis, and we have to be very clear on that," Hashemi said at a news conference Saturday. "We will have a role, we will play a role. That role depends on the political circumstances."

Iraqi election officials said Saturday that the vote count for the 275-member National Assembly would be completed by Thursday. So far, a coalition dominated by Shiite Muslim parties and candidates, and backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, has emerged as the clear front-runner, winning about two-thirds of the 3.3 million votes counted so far. The list headed by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who fashioned himself as a secular alternative, had about 579,700 votes, or about 18 percent.

Those returns are largely from southern Iraq, where Shiites are the overwhelming majority. Kurdish officials say they are confident that they will emerge as the second-most powerful faction once votes are counted from the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq.

Even before the official tallies, though, groups have begun making public their demands ahead of negotiations that could drag on for weeks over the composition of the new government. The National Assembly will choose a president and two deputy presidents who will appoint a prime minister and a cabinet. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a leading party in the Shiite coalition, has said it wants Abdel-Mehdi as the prime minister, although there are other contenders.

The leaders of the two main Kurdish political parties met Thursday in Salahuddin, the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in northern Iraq. They agreed that Jalal Talabani, the leader of one of the parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, would be their candidate for the post of president, officials who attended the meeting said.

The prospect of a Kurdish president in a largely Arab country would mark one of the most dramatic statements of the changing political landscape of Iraq, where the Sunni Arab minority has dominated politics since the country's creation in 1920.

In all likelihood, Sunni Arab voices and representatives of the leading anti-occupation groups will be severely overshadowed in the assembly by the Kurdish and avowedly religious parties drawn from the Shiite majority. As a result, Iraqi leaders across the political spectrum see the incorporation of Sunnis as a key test of the government's ability to reconcile a country badly fractured by dictatorship, war, violence under the U.S. occupation and the growing sectarian and ethnic cast to Iraq's politics.

There is a political calculation, too: The constitution cannot be ratified if it is rejected by a two-thirds vote in three provinces, and Sunni Arab leaders believe they can thwart the ratification in provinces where they are the majority.

As part of their overtures, Sunni Arab and anti-occupation groups have insisted on a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal. U.S. and Iraqi officials, including Abdel-Mehdi, have argued against a timetable, saying it depends on the progress of Iraq's security forces, whose performance has been uneven at best.

"If we start fixing timetables by now, we will be in a difficult situation if we reach that time and we are not prepared," Abdel-Mehdi said in the interview at his home. "You can't announce it, and then say okay, I'll delay it for two months."

"It's better not to go trying to fix dates then to break those dates," he added.

Other demands among the opposition groups are for the release of prisoners captured by U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies and a halt to the policy of removing former Baath Party officials from state institutions.

That process is known in English as de-Baathification, although its Arabic terminology -- uprooting -- has alarmed those opposed to it. Abdel-Mehdi's party is among the proponents of intensifying the process, and officials from the Supreme Council have also suggested that its Shiite militia may play a greater role in Iraq's security forces and their fight with insurgents.

In the interview, though, Abdel-Mehdi struck a more conciliatory tone.

"People are more objective. They have less illusions," he said. "That's why I'm very happy to hear certain positive reactions coming from the (Association of Muslim Scholars). Their language is very positive."

With Sunni Arab support, particularly among parties opposed to the occupation, the government may have an easier time coping with the insurgency, which has stepped up attacks after a lull right after the Jan. 30 vote.

The Ansar al-Sunna Army said the seven National Guard members it killed were captured after an ambush Thursday near Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad. Footage showed the men being shot as they kneeled with their eyes blindfolded.

The Islamic Army in Iraq said it killed three policemen captured in the same raid, although it did not post footage.

In the southern city of Basra, four Iraqi National Guard members were killed in a roadside bombing, news agencies reported, and gunmen assassinated a member of the Baghdad city council in a drive-by shooting. In Samarra, north of Baghdad, at least two Iraqi troops were killed by a blast that hit their patrol, the agencies reported.

The governor's office in Mosul announced Saturday that armed men kidnapped the brother of the police chief, who had vowed to crack down on insurgents. Gunmen overran a police station there Thursday, killing five policemen, officials said. Later, in the evening, the police chief said National Guard members freed his brother and arresting nine.

Staff writer Jackie Spinner in Sulaymaniyah and special correspondent Dlovan Brwari in Mosul contributed to this report.