Falluja Assault Roils Iraqi Politics

By EDWARD WONG

New York Times

November 9, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Nov. 9 - In the first major political backlash over the siege of Falluja, the country's most prominent Sunni political party said today that it was withdrawing from the interim Iraqi government, while the leading group of Sunni clerics called for Iraqis to boycott the upcoming elections.

The moves signaled that popular protest against the American-led invasion, particularly among Sunni Arabs, will likely grow in the coming days.

A boycott by Sunnis, if indeed one comes to pass, would threaten the legitimacy of the outcome and could undermine the rationale for attacking Falluja, which was to drive the insurgents out of the city so residents could take part in the elections.

The Sunni Arabs, a minority group ousted from power with the toppling of Saddam Hussein, have expressed ambivalence about participating in the elections, though American and Iraqi officials say it is crucial to the entire democratic enterprise - and to defeating the increasingly lethal insurgency - that they come on board.

The call for a boycott from the Muslim Scholars Association, a powerful group of Sunni clerics that says it represents 3,000 mosques, will almost certainly dampen voter turnout, but to what degree is unclear. Nor is it clear whether their stance could change in the days ahead.

"The clerics call on honorable Iraqis to boycott the upcoming election that is to be held over the bodies of the dead and the blood of the wounded in cities like Falluja," Harith al-Dhari, the group's director, said this evening at a news conference in Baghdad. Hours earlier, the group had issued a fatwa, or religious decree, ordering Iraqi security forces to not take part in the siege.

Just as ominous was the withdrawal of the Iraqi Islamic Party from the interim government. The party was a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, set up by the Americans during the occupation and has been held up by American and Iraqi officials as a model of Sunni participation in the political future of the country. In recent weeks, its leader, Mohsen

Abdul-Hameed, had been saying he intended to take part in the elections.

"After the attack on Falluja, we decided to withdraw from the government because our presence in the government will be judged by history," Mr. Hameed, a member of the interim National Assembly, said in a telephone interview early today.

The move so alarmed Prime Minister Ayad Allawi that he met privately with Mr. Hameed hours later. But the party stuck to its position, and an aide said in the afternoon that it was not clear that the group will take part in the elections.

"We haven't decided to withdraw from the elections; we're still going forward with the process," the aide, Ayad al-Samarrai, said. "But it will all depend on the general situation in Iraq."

Adding to the growing tension, Moktada al-Sadr, the popular Shiite cleric who has led two uprisings against the Americans, said through a spokesman that the "attack on this city is an attack on all the Iraqi people," and that Iraqis must not help the American forces in the invasion.

Last April, as the Marines made their first ill-fated assault on Falluja, Mr. Sadr ignited a bloody uprising in the south against the Americans and proclaimed his support for the people of Falluja. Likewise, the leaders of Falluja said they backed Mr. Sadr's insurgency. That rare moment of cooperation between Sunni and Shiite guerillas led to one of the greatest crises of the occupation.

American and Iraqi officials gave the green light for the Falluja invasion with the knowledge that it is a gamble. With only three months to go until elections for a 275-member national assembly, rebel-held territory must be brought under control, they say. It is imperative that Sunnis, the group at the heart of the insurgency, turn out in large numbers for the elections so they feel have a say and a stake in the future government, they argue.

But if the assault goes poorly or leads to a public outcry, then the Americans and interim government could end up alienating Sunnis even more. In April, disputed reports of civilian casualties in Falluja ignited protests across the Middle East and transformed the siege into a symbol of the evils of the occupation. Within days, three prominent Sunni politicians - Hachim Hassani, a deputy in the Iraqi Islamic Party; Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, now the Iraqi president; and Adnan Pachachi, a former exile - threatened to resign from the Governing Council, a move that helped push the Bush administration to halt the siege after four days.

Mr. Hassani, an economist who now heads the ministry of minerals and natural resources, said in an interview today that he had just resigned from the Iraqi Islamic Party because of the party's decision to withdraw from the government.

"Nobody is in favor of using force, but the problem is you need sovereignty over all the parts of Iraq," he said. "I haven't heard any party come up with a single suggestion that we can solve the problems in these places without using force."

But Mr. Hassani acknowledged that the siege of Falluja, if it inspires public outrage and more political protests like the ones today, could jeopardize Sunni turnout and possibly derail the elections.

"We have to wait and find out how things are going to go," he said. "If we can solve the Falluja problem very fast and without trouble in other areas, it might work. But I don't know what will happen."