Key Sunni Arab Group Predicates Its Participation on Troops' Leaving

Muslim Scholars Assn. says it won't help write the constitution without a withdrawal timetable.

By Patrick J. McDonnell

Los Angeles Times

February 17, 2005

BAGHDAD — An influential, hard-line Sunni Arab group declared Tuesday that it would not help draft Iraq's constitution or participate in the new government without a fixed timetable for the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces.

The proclamation by the Muslim Scholars Assn. is an indication of the minefields that lie ahead as Shiite Arab and Kurdish coalitions triumphant in last month's landmark election seek to bring disaffected Sunni Arabs into the political process. Although the scholars association is not regarded as representative of a majority of Sunni Arabs, it has demonstrated its political clout before with its call for a boycott of the Jan. 30 vote for a transitional national assembly.

Even as the association was making its pullout demand, the Shiite-led alliance that won the most votes in the balloting seemed to be looking for other ways to placate disenfranchised Sunnis. There were indications Tuesday that the alliance was leaning toward a moderate Islamist, Ibrahim Jafari, as its nominee for the powerful post of prime minister.

Jafari, one of two vice presidents in the current, interim government, has broad popularity and is generally considered more palatable to Sunnis than a number of other possible Shiite nominees. But several people close to the nomination process declined to confirm Iraqi media reports of his selection, and one indicated that Ahmad Chalabi, a former exile leader who once had close ties to the Pentagon and who also ran on the successful Shiite slate, was still in contention.

Chalabi is widely unpopular among Sunni Arabs. After the U.S.-led toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime, Chalabi served on the former American-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and was a strong proponent of purging members of Hussein's Baath Party from the new government. Hussein, a Sunni, favored his sect, and many Sunnis belonged to the party. Even nominal Baath Party members lost their jobs and livelihoods as a result of the de-Baathification campaign.

The gentlemanly Jafari, a physician, has long been affiliated with the Dawa Party, one of the two main groupings on the winning Shiite alliance slate. The other is the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Compared with the supreme council, Dawa is not considered to be as closely allied with neighboring Iran. That is significant, because many Sunni Arabs and other Iraqis fear that a Shiite-led government would be dominated by Iran, an overwhelmingly Shiite nation.

Interim Finance Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi, a supreme council member also on the short list for the prime minister's job, has agreed to drop out to make way for Jafari, one council official said.

The Shiite alliance won more than 48% of the vote, almost double the showing of its nearest rival, the Kurdish slate. Shiites, Kurds and other political groups are crafting a package of prospective nominees for posts, including president, prime minister and Cabinet members, to be presented to the new national assembly for approval.

"Everyone is reaching out to the other," said Nasreen Mustapha Berwari, a Kurd who has served as minister of public works in the interim government. "The hope for a stable Iraq is inclusion. There's a big responsibility on the winners — the Shia and the Kurds — to include those who lost."

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the fledgling government is finding a way to include the Sunni Arab minority, which largely stayed away from the polling booths. Though Sunni Arabs make up perhaps 20% of Iraq's population, Sunni Arab candidates won a much smaller share of seats in the 275-member assembly, which will be responsible for drafting a permanent constitution to present to voters in the fall.

Sunni Arabs could be in a position to block approval of the charter in the national referendum, which is to be held before Oct. 15. If two-thirds of voters in at least three provinces reject the draft constitution, a new one must be written and another vote held.

On Tuesday, the Muslim Scholars Assn. issued seven demands to ensure its participation in national reconciliation and the writing of the constitution.

At the top of the list was a requirement for "a clear and specified timetable" for the withdrawal of the U.S.-led multinational forces, which now number about 170,000. The group also called for the release of all detainees held by the "occupation forces." About 8,000 people are in U.S. custody in Iraq.

The Bush administration is unlikely to yield on either issue. U.S. officials say any reduction in forces must be dependent on the ability of Iraqi forces to take up responsibility for security, and many Iraqi politicians have agreed.

"There is no way we are going to be trapped into a date-driven process," a senior U.S. Embassy official in Baghdad said recently. "That is an insanity…. It's an incentive [for the insurgents] to fight instead of an incentive to quit fighting."

It is difficult to determine how much the demands of the scholars group will resonate in the broader Sunni Arab community. The association has long assailed the foreign troop presence here, and its members were never expected to jump on the new government's bandwagon without concessions. Indeed, Tuesday's declaration may partly have been a ploy to help secure top jobs in the new government and other plums.

More than two dozen other groups and individuals — including Sunnis, Shiites and independents — joined the association in demanding that a withdrawal schedule be set up for the U.S.-led forces. Among those participating in the call was a representative of Muqtada Sadr, the Shiite cleric whose militia has clashed with American troops.

Sadr's militiamen have been quiet in recent months, but he has reached out to Sunni "rejectionists" — as U.S. officials label those who boycotted the election — and criticized the pro-election Shiite establishment based in the city of Najaf.

Despite Sadr's snubbing of the election, at least one group affiliated with his movement won enough votes to take several seats in the national assembly.

Times staff writers T. Christian Miller, Suhail Ahmed and Salar Jaff contributed to this report.