Sunni Leader Insists on Timetable for U.S. Withdrawal

By ROBERT F. WORTH

New York Times

March 29, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 28 - For several weeks, Iraq's most powerful politicians and foreign diplomats have been streaming like anxious pilgrims to western Baghdad, to the vast blue and gold dome of the Mother of All Battles mosque, which was commissioned by Saddam Hussein.

They are there to visit Sheik Harith al-Dari, a 64-year-old cleric and tribal leader who has become a leading spokesman for Iraq's disaffected Sunni Arabs.

Mr. Dari, a taciturn man with an air of cold authority, greets his guests in a dim office off the mosque's main hall, which is surrounded by a moat and tall minarets designed to look like Kalashnikov rifles. Then the guests get down to business. Will Mr. Dari, they ask, be willing to help bring Iraq's Sunnis into politics?

Much could depend on the answer. No new government will be viewed as legitimate without the participation of the Sunni Arabs, who largely boycotted the election in January and dominate the violent insurgency here.

But in a rare interview, conducted Monday through an interpreter in his office at the mosque, Mr. Dari made clear that he would continue to view the armed resistance as legitimate until the American military offered a clear timetable for its withdrawal - a condition very unlikely to be met.

"We ask all wise men in the American nation to advise the administration to leave this country," he said. "It would save much blood and suffering for the Iraqi and American people."

The courting of Mr. Dari is part of a broad effort to engage the Sunni Arabs, who make up a fifth of Iraq's population and supplied its ruling class under Mr. Hussein. The Shiite and Kurdish leaders who dominate the new national assembly and are now struggling to form a governing coalition say part of the delay has been caused by negotiations over which ministries should be granted to Sunnis.

Reaching out to the fractious Sunnis has not been easy.

There are dozens of Sunni political parties and groups, espousing a wide array of positions. Iraqi Sunnis have not traditionally rallied around any single figure like the Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose political coalition won a vast majority of Shiite votes in the January elections.

Many Sunnis resist organizing themselves along sectarian lines. Where Shiites and Kurds, who were brutally suppressed by Mr. Hussein's secular government, fell back on their communal loyalties, the Sunnis never had to, and are only now starting to see themselves as a distinct minority.

The organization that Mr. Dari leads, the Association of Muslim Scholars, claims to represent 3,000 mosques. It has joined an effort to ensure that Sunni Arabs be granted leadership of at least two of the six most important ministries in the new government, including either Interior or Defense.

But the new government is far less important to most Sunni leaders than the writing of a constitution and the next round of elections, both scheduled to take place later this year.

And while some secular figures say many Sunnis now regret not taking part in the elections and are eager to help write Iraq's new constitution, others remain deeply reluctant. Winning the support of more militant sheiks and clerics, Iraqi and American officials say, could be critical in forming a stable government and easing the violence.

The imperative has brought a sudden new prominence to Mr. Dari.

Attired in the headdress and robes of a tribal leader, Mr. Dari is a daunting presence. He rarely smiles, and speaks softly, in brief decisive phrases.

Resisting foreign occupation runs in his blood. His grandfather, Sheik Dari al-Mahmoud, is said to have sparked the Sunni phase of the rebellion against the British in 1920 by killing a British officer near Falluja. He joined the rebellion, which had begun with Shiites in the south, and fought in it until he was captured and imprisoned in 1927.

Harith al-Dari has been viewed as a dangerous man by the American military in Iraq. Over the past year, military officials have said they suspected that Mr. Dari was involved in fomenting resistance against American troops in Falluja and even in the kidnappings of Westerners. His house in Khan Dari, a village west of Baghdad, has been raided repeatedly by American military teams.

Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, who was until recently the top Marine commander in Iraq, said of Mr. Dari, "He's been counterproductive up to this point." But he added that the sheik appeared to be rethinking his position and moderating his hard-line views.

Mr. Dari adamantly denies that he has played any role in kidnappings other than calling for the hostages' release. Asked about his role in Falluja, Mr. Dari gave a coolly ambiguous response.

"The Americans say we played an inciting role in this situation," Mr. Dari said. "Others say we played a good role and helped to calm things down. Either way, we are acting according to our national and religious duty."

Mr. Dari's authority comes partly from his family. In his ancestral home, Khan Dari, his family members have been tribal leaders for at least a century. He also taught Islamic law at Baghdad University for many years before leaving Iraq in 1997 to teach in the United Arab Emirates until Mr. Hussein's fall in 2003. It was only then that he joined the Muslim Scholars Association and attained his current role.

Some other Sunni leaders are clearly irked by Mr. Dari's sudden prominence.

"He's acting as though he were the Sunni Sistani," said Adnan Pachachi, the 81-year-old Sunni elder statesman, referring to the grand ayatollah's almost absolute power over the religious and political lives of many Shiites. "But of course he's not."

But Mr. Pachachi, a secular and liberal figure who has made efforts to organize Iraqi's Sunni political figures in recent weeks, acknowledged that Mr. Dari's word has enormous weight.

Much of that power clearly derives from his reputation as a man who is respected by many resistance fighters. "That perception of him is one of the reasons many find him to be a significant person," said Ashraf Qazi, the top United Nations envoy in Iraq, who has met several times with Mr. Dari.

There are indications that Mr. Dari may be softening his line. In February, the Muslim Scholars Association issued a number of conditions that would have to be met before it would endorse the writing of a constitution and the next round of elections, notably the American withdrawal and the release of all detainees from American military prisons.

On Monday, he hinted that he would be content with a timetable for American withdrawal. Some other hard-line Sunni leaders have made similar gestures.

"We do not insist that the Americans withdraw at once, as long as they stay in their bases and cease to marginalize our political life," said Ali al-Mashadani, a cleric at Ibn Taymiyya mosque in Baghdad. Some political leaders even say the Sunnis, after much bickering, are starting to show signs of a common interest.

"I think the Sunnis are starting to come together as the Shiites and the Kurds did," said Sharif Ali bin Hussein, a former financier and a cousin of Iraq's last king. "We who have more experience in the political arena are trying to educate those who have a more militant point of view. What we are saying is that they cannot continue to boycott the political process; there needs to be participation."

That view is far from unanimous. At a recent conference in Baghdad convened by Sherif Hussein, all the applause was for speakers who praised the insurgency. Some tribal leaders tried to shout down those who spoke in favor of joining the new government.

As for Mr. Dari, he says he cannot be sure how the resistance would behave if his demands for an American withdrawal were met. But he ventured a guess.

"I think Iraqi leaders could speak and appeal to the resistance," he said. "They could tell them: 'If you want to liberate your country, liberation is coming now without any price. So you must save your efforts of blood and money.' "

Mona Mahmoud and Zaineb Obeid contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.