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Iraq: Sunnis, Shi'a Still Must Build Working Relationship

The announcement on 21 May by more than 1,000 Iraqi Sunni political, religious, and tribal leaders of the formation of a united political bloc represents the first unified step that Sunnis have taken within the political process since the fall of Saddam Hussein regime. While the move has been welcomed by Sunnis and Shi'ite leaders, much more needs to be done in terms of establishing a firm working relationship between those two sides.

Sunnis, who dominated the Hussein-led government, will not be satisfied until they secure a greater role in the political process. They have learned that their boycott was not useful, but it remains unclear whether their demands have become more realistic. Calls at the recent conference for Iraq's Shi'ite interior minister to step down in favor of a Sunni replacement illustrate the attitude of Sunnis who have yet to accept that they can no longer enjoy sole control over the Iraqi security apparatus, let alone the Iraqi political scene.

Meanwhile, some Shi'ite leaders, who constitute a majority in the transitional government, appear unwilling to participate in any form of power sharing with Sunnis -- a consequence of 30 years of oppression at the hands of a Sunni-dominated Ba'athist government. But Sunni leaders appear to have found an unlikely ally. Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is best known for his militia's fierce resistance of the U.S.-led occupation, told Al-Arabiyah television in a 22 May interview that he has been accepted by the Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association and by the Shi'ite party Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) as a mediator to help soothe tensions between the two groups (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 May 2005).

Months Of Preparation

Sunni Waqf head Adnan al-Dulaymi said at the 21 May conference that the bloc was established following several months of meetings among disparate Sunni groups: “We were studying the situation of Sunnis in Iraq for months, in periodic meetings. We were recording proceedings of these meetings that we conducted in the presence of reputable personalities who are active in the Iraqi forum," al-Dulaymi told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI). "Our meetings took place behind closed doors, and we did not announce them to the media. We concluded that it was necessary to hold this conference in order to announce here the establishment of the bloc of Sunnis in Iraq (takkattul Ahl al-Sunnah fi Al-Iraq), with participation of a vast portion of their streams and groups -- Islamists, secularists, representatives of tribes, independent, retired officers, university teachers, craftsmen, and businessmen. We will have a seat in Baghdad. We have agreed that we would rely on [the material support from] our Iraqi brothers in financing this purely Iraqi project.”
"I believe that this conference will become a landmark and that a body will come out of it to represent the overwhelming majority of Sunnis, which will facilitate leading negotiations and dialogue with them so that they can effectively participate either in the Iraqi government or in drafting the constitution.”

Participants in the conference included representatives from the Muslim Scholars Association, the Iraqi Islamic Party, and former military leaders from the Hussein regime. The National Dialogue Council, a Sunni group that led negotiations with the transitional government over the assignment of ministerial posts, did not attend.

Conference participants called for the establishment of a rule of law in Iraq and for the inclusion of Sunnis in the drafting of the constitution, RFI reported. “Nothing but the rule of law!" Muslim Scholars Association member Makki al-Kubaysi told the conference. "We all hope that all segments of the Iraqi people will participate in the formulation [of this rule] and in drafting its constitution, without any discrimination between Arabs and Kurds and Turkomans, Shi’a or Sunnis, Muslims or non-Muslims."

But opinions expressed at the conference also revealed the level of frustration and distrust that Sunnis have toward their Shi'ite counterparts. Some participants echoed accusations made by Muslim Scholars Association head Harith al-Dari last week, in which he claimed that Shi'ite militiamen from the SCIRI's Badr Brigades had killed a number of Sunni clerics in targeted assassinations (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 20 May 2005).

“We demand that an independent legal body be set up for the investigation in the crimes of slaughtering and torturing people in detention and arrest, and for raising legal charges against those responsible for the violations. We demand dismissing the minister of interior as he is the first responsible for the work of his ministry,” an unidentified conference participant announced at the podium, according to RFI.

Shi'ite Leaders Welcome Bloc

Shi'ite leaders in Baghdad nonetheless welcomed the formation of the Sunni bloc, saying it would serve as a step toward establishing better relations between Sunni and Shi'ite parties.

SCIRI political-relations chief Rida Jawad al-Taqi told reporters in Baghdad on 21 May: "I believe that this conference will become a landmark and that a body will come out of it to represent the overwhelming majority of Sunnis, which will facilitate leading negotiations and dialogue with them so that they can effectively participate either in the Iraqi government or in drafting the constitution.”

Regarding the Sunni demand that Interior Minister Bayan Jabr step down, al-Taqi told RFI: “The time that we are going through in Iraq is a time of freedom, so Iraqi citizens in general have the right to raise demands. This is natural and there is nothing sensitive in it.”

Jabr was less conciliatory, saying that Sunnis had no right to make demands on the transitional government after they boycotted January's National Assembly election. “Regarding those who demand my resignation: someone who has not received a single [electoral] vote has no right to demand from anyone to step aside. The right to dismiss a particular minister belongs to the National Assembly,” Jabr said at a 21 May press briefing, according to RFI.

Shi'ite leaders did pledge to include more Sunnis in the constitutional drafting process. Earlier commitments to that end fell through last week when the 55-member constitutional drafting committee was announced with only one Sunni.

SCIRI member and Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi told RFI in a 23 May interview: “There has been a high concern in the process of preparing the constitution [draft]. I think today or tomorrow, [setting up] the [parliamentary] committee, and specifically the constitution committee, will be finished. There is a wish to include all communities of the Iraqi people.” Abd al-Mahdi said that the committee "must represent the plurality of political streams and different governorates." "This is the desire that the representation be broad, that the constitution be prepared by experts and Iraqis who represent the Iraqi reality, and that the constitution come as a fulfillment of the wishes of all segments of the Iraqi people,” he said.

Abd al-Mahdi dismissed reports of growing sectarian strife between Sunnis and Shi'a, saying that the government and Iraq's ethnic and religious groups are united in their rejection of sectarian violence. “We, basically, denounce any strife and any sectarian conflict in Iraq. The Presidential Council supports the unity of the nation. It wants to do its best in fighting terrorism and sabotages and in the proper enforcement of justice, but we will not allow any incitement of any sectarian strife. All segments of the Iraqi people -- Sunnis and Shi’a, Arabs and Kurds, Turkomans and Christians and Assyrians -- all distance themselves from such strife. There are forces willing to provoke the strife among the Iraqi people. [Abu Mus'ab] al-Zarqawi has repeatedly announced that he wants to hijack the strife for his own goals. All communities, Sunnis and Shi’a, recognize the perpetrator or the perpetrators of this strife. Consequently, there is a unified stance of the government and a unified stance of the people.”

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