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Iraq's once-dominant Sunni Arabs form nationwide alliance

Sunday, May 22, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A British tabloid published more surreptitiously taken prison pictures of Saddam Hussein on Saturday, and Iraq's once-dominant Sunni Muslim minority sought to break out of its deepening isolation by forming an alliance of tribal, political and religious groups.

But the new Sunni group's first act, a demand the interior minister resign, threatened to fuel sectarian tensions following the recent killing of several Sunni clerics that they have blamed on Shiite-dominated security forces.

Ten clerics, both Sunni and Shiite, have been killed by gunmen in the past two weeks. Sunnis dominated Iraq under Saddam, but Shiites comprise the majority and hold the bulk of power in the new government.

Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a Shiite, denied the government was involved in the killings and said he would not step down.

"No one has the right to call for the resignation of a minister, only parliament can do that. Those who didn't get one vote have no right to ask," Jabr said, referring to the fact that many Sunnis stayed away from Jan. 30 elections either in protest or fear of attacks.

The newly created Sunni alliance, which has not adopted a name, will open its first office in Baghdad with branches later in other cities.

The charitable organization was one of three main Sunni groups to back the formation of the new organization. The others were the influential Association of Muslim Scholars and the Iraqi Islamic Party.

Sunnis dominated under Saddam's Baathist regime but make up just 15 percent to 20 percent of Iraq's 26 million people and most stayed away from the polls that led to the nation's first democratically elected government.

There were fears that the publication Friday and Saturday of pictures showing the imprisoned Saddam, including one where he is clad only in his underwear, could further fuel anti-American sentiment.

Saddam, 'Mrs. Anthrax'

The new pictures in Britain's The Sun included one of Saddam seen through barbed wire wearing a white Arab robe, and another of Ali Hassan al-Majid, better known as "Chemical Ali" for his alleged role in gassing Kurds, in a bathrobe and holding a towel.

The newspaper also ran pictures of Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, a biotech researcher dubbed "Mrs. Anthrax," who got her nickname for her alleged work trying to develop biological weapons for Saddam.

The Sun said the photos were provided by "U.S. military sources" it did not identify.

The U.S. military condemned publication of the photos and ordered an investigation into the leak.

The charitable organization was one of three main Sunni groups to back the formation of the new organization. The others were the influential Association of Muslim Scholars and the Iraqi Islamic Party.

"We decided to establish this Sunni political and religious organization to speak on behalf the Arab Sunnis. We all have to work for the sake of Iraq to get this country out of this hard situation," said Sheik Lawrence Abid Ibrahim al-Hardan, 47, who is from restive Anbar province west of Baghdad.

Sunnis said they hope the organization will give them more of a say in Shiite-dominated Iraq and help bring the minority together ahead of new elections in December.

"We made a big mistake when we didn't take part in the elections and that was because we didn't have a unified and clear religious and political organization," said Sheik Salim Assad Abdullah al-Dhahir, 55.

Sunnis dominated under Saddam's Baathist regime but make up just 15 percent to 20 percent of Iraq's 26 million people and most stayed away from the polls that led to the nation's first democratically elected government.

Shiites, who comprise 60 percent of the population, emerged from the Jan. 30 elections with the biggest bloc in the National Assembly. They have allied with Kurds while seeking to include Sunnis in the government.

"We condemn raids and detention done under the cover of the law against imams and mosques. We demand an independent committee be formed to verify if detainees were killed or tortured and demand the resignation of the interior minister," the Sunnis said in a statement announcing the formation of their organization.

The government has denied involvement in the killings but said some attackers have worn Iraqi army uniforms when seizing their victims and declared Iraqi troops can no longer enter mosques, churches or universities.

"No one has the right to call for the resignation of a minister, only parliament can do that. Those who didn't get one vote have no right to ask," Jabr said, referring to the fact that many Sunnis stayed away from Jan. 30 elections either in protest or fear of attacks.


Associated Press Writers Bassem Mroue, Paul Garwood and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.


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