Powerful Shiite opposes return of Baath Party members

Posted in Iraq | 03-Apr-07 | Author: Edward Wong| Source: International Herald Tribune

Iraqis gathering around a car bomb wreck in Baghdad on Monday.

BAGHDAD: The most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq has rejected an American-backed proposal to allow thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to return to government service, an aide to the cleric said Monday.

The rejection appears certain to fuel further sectarian hostility between Sunni Arabs and Shiites, since many Sunnis say they were unfairly purged from the government in the clampdown on the Baath Party.

The Americans say a partial reversal of the strict "de-Baathfication" process is one of the most crucial steps the Iraqi government can take in wooing back disenfranchised Sunni Arabs and draining the Sunni-led insurgency of its fervor.

The latest proposal was announced by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani on March 26 at the strong urging of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, the senior American envoy to Iraq, who left his job last week. American officials were instrumental in drafting the proposal.

But an aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the revered, reclusive Shiite cleric, said Monday that there was a "general feeling of rejection" over the proposal.

"The office of Grand Ayatollah Sistani is deeply concerned about the new law," the aide said.

Sistani, who lives in a warren of alleyways in the holy city of Najaf, generally does not issue proclamations himself. He makes his edicts known through his aides or other Iraqi officials. His word is considered sacrosanct not only among the Shiites in Iraq, but throughout the world, and any rejection of the proposal by him means the draft law has virtually zero chance of being passed by the cabinet or the Iraqi Parliament, both of which are majority Shiite.

The comments from the ayatollah's office came a day after Ahmad Chalabi, the former Pentagon favorite and head of the de-Baathification commission, met with the cleric in Najaf. Chalabi has opposed any serious attempt to roll back the purging of former Baathists from government. After the meeting on Sunday, Chalabi said at a news conference that Sistani was aware of the law and had told Chalabi that it "would not be the final one and there would be other drafts."

News of the rejection Monday drew harsh criticism from Sunni Arab leaders.

"In my opinion, our country is now one led by the clerics, and the new political process in Iraq is made to allow those clerics and religious parties to govern Iraq," said Salim Abdullah, a legislator from the main Sunni Arab bloc in Parliament. "The Iraqis will feel the consequences of that."

"The Iraqi government is using wilayat al-faqih," he added, angrily invoking the term that refers to the style of clerical governance popularized by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran.

Officials from the secular party of Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister, also expressed profound disappointment. Allawi said in an interview last month that the religious Shiites were using the de-Baathification process to unjustly purge members of his party from public office. Allawi, a Shiite who is a former Baathist, has said that the Sunni-led insurgency would continue as long as former members of the Baath Party are shut out of significant positions in the government.

Ibrahim al-Janabi, a legislator and senior aide to Allawi, said Monday that the lobbying of Sistani by Shiites like Chalabi "is the weapon of losers."

"When they feel they might lose out, they go to the ayatollahs to get support to push through their goals," he said. "This matter should be discussed inside the Parliament."

The main spokesman for the American Embassy did not answer an e-mail message seeking comment and could not be reached by telephone.

Sistani subscribes to the "quietist" school of Shiite ideology, meaning that he prefers not to get directly involved in politics. But since the American invasion of March 2003, he has issued a series of edicts that have supported a political process intended to put religious Shiites at the head of the Iraqi government. Those edicts have often clashed with American policy in Iraq and foiled the plans of the Bush administration.

Most notably, the ayatollah, by calling for huge street protests in January 2004, forced the Americans to agree to hold direct elections for a transitional Parliament. Sistani then assembled a religious Shiite bloc to run in that first set of elections. The bloc won that election as well as the vote for a full-term government in December 2005, contributing to the fears of some Bush administration officials that Iraq could become an Iranian-style theocracy.

Elsewhere in Iraq on Monday, a suicide bomber detonated a truck filled with explosives outside an Iraqi government building in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing at least 12 people, including children at a nearby school, and wounding 178, the Iraqi police said.

The bomber drove the truck into the mainly Kurdish neighborhood of Rahemaw and blew it up next to the criminal and federal investigations directorate during office hours, they said. The city's police chief, Turhan Yousif, said that there was extensive damage to the building and to the primary school nearby. Witnesses said there were American forces inside the government building, and an Iraqi police officer said that some were injured.

There was no immediate confirmation from the American military of the reports.

After the attack, ambulances raced through the streets, calling on citizens to give blood, amid calls of "Allahu Akbar," or God is great. Hundreds of families heeding the call gathered in front of the Wazadi hospital to donate blood and check on the wounded, most of whom were children with head and abdominal injuries. Injured children lay in the hospital and school yards.

Students said the force of the blast flung schoolchildren from their seats and sent shrapnel and glass shards flying. Fires burned in the aftermath.

"We were in the last lesson, and heard the sound of explosion which blew the glass and smoke inside the class," said Naz Omar Shafeeq, a female student in the fifth grade, who had head and leg wounds. "I saw two of my friends who were near the window thrown on the floor bleeding and speechless."

Another student, Buthaina Mahmood Taki, a fourth grader, said the bodies of classmates were torn to pieces, some of them in the school yard where they had been caught by the blast as they prepared to leave. Smoke rose from their bodies, she said.

The attack, in the ethnically mixed and disputed city, further highlighted the indiscriminate nature of violence in Iraq, which has shattered community life in many areas of the country, mostly in western and central Iraq.Just last week, two Chaldean Christian nuns were murdered in Kirkuk by attackers who broke into their house.

"I don't know why would anybody target a school or a security headquarters that is close to a school with children in it," said a schoolteacher, Wafiqa Abdullah Nawzad. "This is an unforgivable crime. Either the Iraqi and Kurdish governments find a solution to secure the people or they should resign."

Schools, she said, "have no relationship with the Americans, they raise generations."

Many of the attacks in Iraq have been aimed at the Iraqi and foreign forces and their institutions.

A wounded policeman, lying in the emergency room, said that the force he belonged to had just moved to the new building a month ago.

"There were U.S. forces in our building," he said. "They help us in arresting terrorists, handing over detainees, and conducting joint investigations. Suddenly we heard the sound of a huge blast, which destroyed the fa├žade of the building and shattered the glass of the windows on our faces. I saw only fire and heard gunshots. I also saw some injuries of U.S. forces."

Kirkuk has Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen populations. The Iraqi Constitution says the province, which is rich in oil reserves, must hold a popular referendum by the end of 2007 to determine whether it will be governed by Kurdistan.

Sherzad Abdullah Mahmood, a medic in Kirkuk hospital, cried as he treated the wounded. He said that there were insufficient supplies in the hospital to deal with the casualties.

"Those who are killed or wounded are civilians, and lately they are killing children," he said.

In other violence, the bodies of 19 men from a Shiite village who had been kidnapped by gunmen at a fake checkpoint north of Baghdad were found Monday, the Iraqi police said, according to Reuters.

Two car bombs and a roadside bomb detonated in three Baghdad neighborhoods, killing two people and wounding 19, according to the Iraqi Interior Ministry.

With reporting by Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi and Qais Mizher from Baghdad; Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Najaf and Kirkuk, Iraq, and Christine Hauser from New York.

The most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani , has rejected a proposal to allow thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to return to government service, an aide to the cleric said Monday.

The rejection appears certain to fuel further sectarian hostility between Sunni Arabs and Shiites, since many Sunnis say they were unfairly purged from the government in the clampdown on the Baath Party after the removal of Saddam. . Page 4