A voice of reason silenced in Iraq
DAMASCUS - All hopes that the months to come would witness real reconciliation in Iraq were suddenly muted this weekend when Harith al-Obeidi, a heavyweight Sunni politician renowned for his moderation and civility, was gunned down after delivering a Friday sermon in Baghdad.
He is one of the most senior politicians in Iraq to have been killed since the downfall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. Obeidi, who heads the Iraqi Accordance Front bloc in parliament, was shot twice in the head by a teenager at the Shawaf mosque, bringing the number of Front figures assassinated over the past six years to nearly 100. Four other people were killed in the attack, including Obeidi's brother-in-law, and 12 were injured before the young assassin was himself gunned down by mosque security. Shortly before his death, Obeidi, 45, was speaking to worshipers about the lack of accountability and justice in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Iraq.
Deputy chairman of the Human Rights Committee in parliament, Obeidi had often criticized Maliki for the continued detainment of Sunnis, calling for a general amnesty and a greater role for Sunni politicians in the post-2003 political system.
Harith al-Obeidi was born and raised in Baghdad, where he studied Islamic jurisprudence for one year at Mustansiriyya University in Najaf before moving to the Faculty of Islamic Sharia in Baghdad, from which he graduated in 1988. He then obtained a PhD in Comparative Jurisprudence from Baghdad University and worked as an academic, writing and lecturing, until the downfall of Saddam's regime in 2003. He became an active member of the Accordance Front, lobbying for Sunni rights in the post-Saddam order. His uniform demands were always related to an amnesty for Sunnis, a curb on Shi'ite and Sunni militias, greater freedoms and greater dignity for Iraqi prisoners.
He was always at odds end with the Americans, members of Maliki's cabinet and members of al-Qaeda, criticizing all three groups for the chaos that has existed in Iraq since 2003. His loudest words were often directed at the Americans, and he famously said, "The occupation is responsible for every crime and the death of every citizen in Iraq. If the occupier would leave, Iraqis would live as brothers."
After entering parliament in 2005, he was voted head of the Front bloc on May 2, only one month before his assassination, replacing his colleague Adel al-Samarrai, who was elected speaker. One day before his killing, he spoke within the chamber, calling for the interrogation of the ministers of Defense and Interior in Maliki's cabinet, blaming them for sectarian violence and poor conditions in prisons.
In September 2005, US troops raided his home, suspecting him of being part of the so-called Sunni insurgency. These accusations proved to be false, and, far from it, Obeidi had long called for the disarmament of militias, be they Sunni or Shi'ite, and the restructuring of the army on nationalist lines with no distinction to ethnic or religious backgrounds. In January 2006, he lobbied with Sunni militias to release US journalist Jill Caroll of the Christian Science Monitor, claiming that the continued abduction and killing of foreigners in Iraq harmed the interests of the people.
Drawing a clear balance in his criticism, he was equally very critical of the Maliki cabinet; when it raided a Baghdad slum known as Sadr City in March 2008, he commented that the district's residents - who are all Shi'ite - had had enough. More recently, Obeidi called on US President Barack Obama to release blocked photos of prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib, saying that all the promising words spoken by Obama in Cairo on June 4 "would fail" if secrecy over wrongs continued and if the abusers were not brought to justice in US courts.
It won't be easy for the Front to recover the loss of a heavyweight like Obeidi. When the coalition was created in 2005, it won 15.1% of the vote, thanks to the charisma of leaders like Obeidi, and took 44 seats of the 275-seat parliament. That entitled it to six seats in the cabinet, which it held until withdrawing from government in August 2007, accusing the prime minister of sectarian practices. The Front is likely to face some turbulence in the weeks ahead as the Americans start leaving and the country braces for parliamentary elections.
It will have to push forward with its demands, representing Sunnis, vis-a-vis rapprochement, dialogue and amnesty. That certainly won't be easy without Obeidi. For now, one question remains; who did it? Was it al-Qaeda, as some members of the Front say? Or was it certain Iraqi politicians who were distressed at the lout anti-corruption campaign preached by Obeidi from within parliament? Last month, Maliki was forced to dismiss, then arrest, his Minister of Trade Abdul Falah Sudani, on charges of corruption. This week, Obeidi hinted at bringing down the ministers of Defense and Interior.
Maliki, whose relations with Obeidi were always strained, immediately condemned the attack, claiming that whomever shot the Sunni politician was trying to spread sectarian violence. Sources close to the prime minister, and Obeidi's own Front, blamed the killing on al-Qaeda. Shortly afterwards, an unknown militia leader named Abu Issam claimed responsibility, saying al-Qaeda had distributed arms in the Yarmouk camp where the murder took place.
A member of the Sons of Iraq Movement, Abu Issam madly warned, "Al-Qaeda is coming! We are coming O' residents of Yarmouk!" Twenty-four hours before the shooting, however, Maliki had warned that he expected violence to increase ahead of the June 30 withdrawal of US forces from cities and towns. The Accordance Front was more cautious, noting, "We hope this will not bring back sectarianism. Whoever says security is good; this is proof that security has not been implemented yet."
A member of the Front, Abdul Sattar Karbouly, added, "We know that no decent politician is immune from being targeted in Iraq. We are not surprised that this would happen. Obeidi is not the first nor he will be the last. It is astonishing that this happens in a very well-protected area like Yarmouk."
Noteworthy is the official state funeral given to the slain leader - the first of its kind since 2003. Maliki was there, so was his deputy Adel Abdul Mehdi and parliament speaker Adel al-Samarrai, all clad in black, watching the honor guard, dressed in white, carrying Obeidi's coffin, which was draped with the Iraqi flag.
On Saturday - again setting a precedent - the League of Arab States issued a statement from Cairo condemning the killing of Obeidi, whom it described as "a loud voice of moderation and prominent Iraqi leader". It expressed fear - with due right - that the future of dialogue in Iraq is at risk.
Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.