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Iraq's al-Maliki wins rare Kurdish, Sunni support in militia crackdown

Sunday, April 6, 2008

BAGHDAD -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's faltering crackdown on Shiite militants has won the backing of Sunni Arab and Kurdish parties that fear both the powerful sectarian militias and the effects of failure on Iraq's fragile government.

The emergence of a common cause could help bridge Iraq's political rifts.

The head of the Kurdish self-ruled region, Massoud Barzani, has offered Kurdish troops to help fight anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.

More significantly, Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi signed off on a statement by President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and the Shiite vice president, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, expressing support for the crackdown in the oil-rich southern city of Basra.

Al-Hashemi is one of al-Maliki's most bitter critics and the two have been locked in an acrimonious public quarrel for a year. Al-Hashemi has accused the prime minister of sectarian favoritism and al-Maliki has complained that the Sunni vice president is blocking key legislation.

On Thursday, however, al-Maliki paid al-Hashemi a rare visit. A statement by al-Hashemi's office said the vice president told al-Maliki that "we can bite the bullet and put aside our political differences."

"The main aim at this critical juncture is to ensure that our political choices are made in Iraq's interest," al-Hashemi said.

Shiite militias were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Sunni Arabs in the sectarian bloodletting of 2006 and 2007. The Mahdi Army is blamed for much of the killing.

A top leadership council made up of Talabani, al-Maliki and leaders of major political blocs called Saturday on Iraqi parties to disband their militias or risk being barred from contesting elections and participating in political life.

The council also affirmed its support for al-Maliki's campaign against militias and "outlaws."

"I think the government is now enjoying the support of most political groups because it has adopted a correct approach to the militia problem," said Hussein al-Falluji, a lawmaker from parliament's largest Sunni Arab bloc, the three-party Iraqi Accordance Front. Al-Hashemi heads one of the three, the Iraqi Islamic Party.

The Accordance Front pulled out of al-Maliki's Cabinet in August to protest his policies. The newfound support over militias could help al-Maliki persuade the five Sunni ministers who quit their posts to return.

If he succeeds, that would constitute a big step toward national reconciliation, something the U.S. has long demanded.

Still, the Sunnis are looking for concessions from al-Maliki, whom they accuse of monopolizing power.

"The mission ahead is clear," al-Hashemi's office said in an April 2 statement. "There must be a national program that obliges everyone to reconsider, show flexibility, accept the others and ... work in the spirit of one team."

Whether that happens depends largely on how the government deals with the issue of Shiite militias.

The Basra crackdown, ostensibly waged against "outlaws" and "criminal gangs," bogged down in the face of fierce resistance and discontent in the ranks of government forces. Major combat eased after al-Sadr asked his militia to stop fighting last Sunday.

But al-Maliki continued his tough rhetoric, threatening to take his crackdown to the Mahdi Army's strongholds in Baghdad. Al-Sadr hinted at retaliation, and the prime minister backed down, freezing raids and arrests targeting the young cleric's supporters.

Barzani, the Kurdish leader, has been at sharp odds with al-Maliki's government over what he sees as its lackluster reaction to Turkish military moves against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. The Kurds are also angry over the national government's opposition to Kurdish deals with foreign oil companies.

But the Kurds, for years Washington's most reliable allies in Iraq, also see the Sadrists' anti-U.S. fervor as a threat to the country's political process and its stability.

Al-Sadr is openly opposed to a federal system, arguing that carving up the country into self-rule regions similar to that in Kurdistan would lead to Iraq's breakup. Another source of tension with the Kurds is the Sadrists' vehement opposition to Kurdish claims to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which they want to annex to their region over the opposition of its Arab and Turkomen residents.

"I think the events in Basra will help bridge the gap between the central government and Kurdistan authorities," said Fouad Massoum, a senior Kurdish lawmaker.

Al-Maliki has sought to cast himself as a national leader who is above the country's sectarian divide, saying that he was going after "outlaws" and "criminal gangs" regardless of their sect, ethnicity or party links.

But other motives may have played a role in the crackdown.

Provincial elections are scheduled to be held before Oct. 1 and Shiite parties are gearing up for a tough contest in the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq, where oil-rich Basra and the wealthy religious centers of Najaf and Karbala are prizes.

A successful crackdown in Basra would have boosted the election chances of al-Maliki's Dawa party and his Shiite allies in the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, whose Badr Brigade militia is the Mahdi Army's sworn enemy.

The Supreme Council hopes to win the fall vote so it can form a self-ruled region similar to the Kurdish one in the north -- something the Sadrists oppose. Key council figures also want the crackdown to continue -- even at the risk of a new round of fighting.

"He must impose the law on everyone, and he (al-Maliki) told us this is his intention," said Jalal Eddin al-Sagheer, a hardline cleric associated with the Supreme Council, a close ally of Iraq's Kurds. "We reject any deals or negotiations."


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