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Iraq: Choice Of Parliamentary Speaker Reveals Sunni Discord

6 April 2005 -- Sunnis successfully nominated fellow parliamentarian Hajim al-Hassani as speaker of the National Assembly on 3 April. The choice followed several days of internal friction and disagreements with the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) over a Sunni candidate. Such friction suggests a growing fissure between mainstream Sunnis and the Muslim Scholars Association, a group that claims to represent some 3,000 mosques in Iraq.

Shi'ite leaders had supported the first Sunni nominee, interim President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir. But al-Yawir declined to accept the nomination, which he considered a demotion from his current position. Al-Yawir's decision left the 17 Sunni parliamentarians scrambling to find a nominee that was acceptable not only to them, but also to the Shi'ite and Kurdish lists that together constitute a majority in the parliament. The events that followed demonstrated the diversity within the Sunni constituency, as their representatives struggled to find a compromise candidate who would represent both secular and Islamist Sunnis, as well as all of Iraq's citizenry.

When At First You Don't Succeed...

After the Sunnis failed to nominate a new speaker at the 29 March session, Reconciliation and Liberation Bloc head Mish'an al-Juburi proclaimed himself the new Sunni nominee on 1 April. Veteran Sunni politician Adnan al-Pachachi confirmed the nomination, saying that Sunni leaders participating in the National Forces Front (also called the National Front and Dialogue Council), agreed on the al-Juburi nomination. The front reportedly represents Sunni religious, political, and tribal groups including the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Council of National Dialogue, the Ifta Council, and the Shura Council of Ahl al-Sunnah wa Al-Jama'ah, as well as Sufi and Salafist groups. "This front is considered the ultimate authority for approving or choosing the candidates who are reserved for the Sunni community," said Pachachi, according to a 2 April report by RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq. Some members of the Muslim Scholars Association also belong to the front, although the association does not official participate in it.
Among other things, Sunnis are pressing for a more equitable distribution of cabinet posts -- a demand that might be resisted by Shi'ites and Kurds.

Shi'ite leaders quickly made it known that they would not accept al-Juburi, a former Ba'athist and associate of Saddam Hussein's family, as speaker. They contended that the al-Juburi nomination did not represent all Sunni groups and therefore could not be considered. Thousands of Iraqis reportedly demonstrated in Tikrit on 2 April in favor of al-Juburi's nomination. But in an effort to pressure Sunnis to find another candidate, Shi'ite leaders fired back, threatening to nominate their own speaker. The Sunni party Constitutional Monarchy Movement also expressed dissatisfaction with the al-Juburi nomination, claiming instead to support United Iraqi Alliance candidate Fawwaz al-Jarba for the position.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi public expressed growing frustration over the delay. The frustration was brushed off however, by United Iraqi Alliance leader and prime ministerial candidate Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, who told on 3 April: "The reason it took time to reach this first stage is because there's a difference between dictatorship and democracy. Dictatorship takes a short time. Democracy takes a longer time, because people need to negotiate with each other to get the best results." Al-Juburi meanwhile, accused the United Iraqi Alliance of attempting to establish "hegemony" over the Sunni choice by driving a wedge between Sunni groups.

A Breakthrough

The United Iraqi Alliance's threat put Sunnis on the defensive but nonetheless produced the desired effect. Al-Hassani was nominated and elected speaker. UIA candidate Husayn al-Shahristani and Kurdistan Coalition candidate Arif Tayfur were elected deputy speakers.

Speaking to RFI on 3 April, al-Juburi said of his withdrawal: "I find it to be in the national interest that the political process is successful, [and] I believe that doctor Hajim [al-Hasani] is a convenient [candidate] too, and that he will fulfill the same role that I had expected myself to fulfill. He is a person able to represent the interests of the people who elected me and chose me for this post." Al-Juburi added that he did not want to give the impression of craving posts and titles, and consequently informed prime ministerial candidate al-Ja'fari, interim President al-Yawir, and acting assembly speaker Dari al-Fayyad of his decision.

Al-Juburi told Al-Jazeera in a 4 April interview that the United Iraqi Alliance offered to withdraw its candidate for the post in exchange for al-Juburi's withdrawal from the race. "Our position...has been that we objected to the UIA naming one of its members [a reference to the UIA's Sunni candidate, Fawwaz al-Jarba,] who won votes of the Shi'ite list and the Shi'ite voters as a representative of the Sunni Arabs to assume one of the primary positions. We had what we wanted. Therefore, we made them withdraw this candidate." Al-Juburi said that he accepted al-Hassani as the speaker and conceded that his own nomination would not have been accepted. "I adopt anti-de-Ba'athification principles and I talk about liberation. I denounced terrorist operations, but I support the noble national resistance, which targets the Hummer, the occupation. I believe these principles are unacceptable to others."

Sunni Tensions

The internal friction among the Sunni groups is best reflected in the growing realization by some Sunnis that they should distance themselves from the Muslim Scholars Association led by Harith al-Dari, which has served as the leading proponent of the "resistance." One example of the friction is the recent issuance of a fatwa, or religious edict, by 64 Sunni clerics calling on Iraqis to join the army and police to protect citizens' lives, property, and honor. The intention of the fatwa appears to be more of an attempt to temper the Shi'ite and Kurdish domination of the security services than an offer of Sunni reconciliation or a contribution to Iraq's democratic development. Hardly a full-fledged endorsement of the new government, the fatwa said in part, "The army and police are the safety valves [of Iraqi society] and they are the army of the entire nation and not militias of a special faction or party." Nevertheless, it sparked outrage among some members of the Muslim Scholars Association, which issued a statement denying its support of the edict.

Association members Harith al-Ubaydi and Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarra'i (the imam who announced the fatwa) have reportedly left the association and joined the Iraqi Islamic Party. National Assembly speaker al-Hassani was a member of the party but withdrew his membership last year after party leader Muhsin Abd al-Hamid ordered all members to withdraw from the interim government. The party later expressed regret for following the association's lead and boycotting January's elections.

The association, meanwhile, has launched accusations at Sunni leaders Pachachi and Sharif Ali bin al-Husayn (Constitutional Monarchy Movement) and at Shi'ite leader Ahmad Chalabi, claiming all three men have attempted to ride the wave of resistance in order to achieve personal gains, "Al-Hayat" reported on 4 April. All three men have claimed to have established contacts with members of the resistance interested in taking part in the government. Association member Khalid Fakhri al-Jumayli told the daily, "They want to deceive the resistance and are giving promises they cannot fulfill in an attempt to extinguish the political program of the resistance." He added that certain positions taken by the association have also "helped split the Arab Sunni's political rank and weaken their representation in the parliamentary elections process."

Distributing Influential Posts

Sunnis are pressing for a more equitable distribution of cabinet posts, a demand that might be resisted by Shi'ites and Kurds. "We will not accept only four ministries for the Sunni Arabs. We want as many ministerial portfolios as designated for the Kurds. This is how things were during the first and second governments," Pachachi told Al-Jazeera on 1 April.

Ali al-Rubay'i, spokesman for Ayatollah Muhammad Ishaq al-Fayyad, told "The Washnington Post" that Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has advised the United Iraqi Alliance to give the Sunnis control over either the foreign or defense minister posts, with the other post going to the Kurds, the website reported on 3 April. The United Iraqi Alliance would retain control over the Interior Ministry and intelligence services -- posts that some Sunnis believe they have a right to administer.

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