Rising Iraqi leaders have fewer ties to U.S.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A new batch of Iraqi leaders has sprung up in the latest spasm of violence in Iraq -- people with grassroots support but few or no ties to the U.S.-led occupation.

The new players include an association of Sunni clerics, "the Prince of the Marshes" from southern Iraq and an outspoken Shiite woman dentist.

The rise of these new figures is largely at the expense of politicians with links to the U.S.-led occupation. Their arrival comes as Iraqi leaders are wrangling over who will make up a government due to take power from U.S. administrators on June 30.

On that day, the U.S.-appointed Governing Council -- a 25-member body that has served as Iraq's interim government since July but failed to win the trust of many Iraqis -- will likely be dissolved.

U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who was asked to come up with a plan for Iraq's transition, has proposed the council be replaced by a caretaker government of "men and women known for their honesty, integrity and competence."

Brahimi did not say who he had in mind.

But many Iraqis are starting to see those qualifications in the new rising stars: the Islamic Clerics Committee -- a Sunni group -- and Shiite Governing Council members Abdul-Karim al-Mohammedawi and Salama al-Khufaji.

Using leverage

Vehemently anti-occupation, the Sunni committee was formed a year ago but had been sidelined by the newly powerful Shiite clergy. For months the committee has struggled to give a voice to Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, demoralized by its loss of power under Saddam.

The current crisis has boosted the committee's fortunes and influence.

The Sunni clerics have used their leverage to win the release of 20 foreign hostages snatched in a wave of abductions that accompanied this month's violence.

Images of the smiling clerics embracing freed hostages have been beamed daily by Arab satellite TV stations widely seen in Iraq, and the releases have won thanks from foreign embassies.

The committee says it has no contacts with the abductors, arguing that its "patriotic" anti-occupation stance persuades kidnappers to heed their appeal for the release of captives not directly involved in military operations.

At the same time, the clerics' group has become the hero of residents of Fallujah. It has organized aid convoys into the city, and its main mosque in Baghdad is a refuge for residents fleeing the city.

The prince and the dentist

Iraqis dubbed Al-Mohammedawi the "Prince of the Marshes" for leading a resistance movement against Saddam in the southern marsh region of Iraq for 17 years. He was imprisoned for six years under Saddam's regime.

Al-Mohammedawi, 45, bearded and often wearing a traditional Arab robe, has suspended his membership in the Governing Council this month to protest U.S. policies in Iraq. He also has played a key role in efforts to mediate an end to the standoff between U.S. forces and radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia has clashed with U.S. and other coalition forces this month.

Al-Khufaji, a Shiite professor of dentistry at Baghdad University, is another rising star on the Iraqi political scene. She joined the Governing Council in December, replacing another Shiite woman who was assassinated three months earlier.

Her conservative dress -- a black chador that covers her entire body except for the face -- makes her an exception among professional women in Iraq, most of whom wear headscarves or no traditional Islamic covering at all.

She said in an interview that she objected to military solutions to the standoff with al-Sadr or the fighting in Fallujah.

"Muqtada al-Sadr has a large following and many supporters on the streets," she said. "The Americans' insistence on his arrest came as a surprise to many Iraqis since they are not used to seeing this happening to icons of their society."

An investigative judge has issued an arrest warrant for al-Sadr in connection with charges of theft and the murder last year of a rival cleric in the holy city of Najaf.

"These two have taken positions that set them apart from the rest of the council members," Amer al-Husseini, one of al-Sadr's chief representatives in Baghdad, said of al-Mohammedawi and al-Khufaji.

Words like these are high praise since they come from a senior official in a movement that has branded Governing Council members traitors and rejected their decisions as illegal.

"Salama al-Khufaji's shoe is of more value than the entire council," another al-Sadr aide, Nasser al-Saadi, told a 20,000-strong congregation on April 9.

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