Building blocs of conciliation
Sunni and Shiite Arab lawmakers announced plans Wednesday to form two new blocs in Iraq’s parliament they hope will break away from the ethnic and religious mold of current alliances and ease sectarian strife.
But though both blocs said they hoped to eventually draw in members of all ethnic and religious groups, one initially will be made up entirely of Shiite Muslim politicians and the other of Sunni Muslims.
Moderate politicians across the sectarian divide have voiced mounting frustration over parliament’s seeming impotence in the face of escalating violence, which killed at least 32 Iraqis and injured dozens Wednesday. The U.S. military announced the deaths of three soldiers and a Marine in fighting north and west of the capital.
A group of mostly independent legislators in the United Iraqi Alliance, the dominant Shiite faction, said that within days they would launch a Solidarity bloc intended to be a voice of moderation within parliament’s largest political formation.
Members hope to appeal “to Iraqis’ patriotism and not their sect or ethnicity,” said Shatha Moussawi, one of Solidarity’s founding members.
Organizers claimed the support of at least 10 of the United Iraqi Alliance’s 128 legislators, and said others had expressed interest in joining them. For now, the group plans to remain within the alliance. But members said they would reach out to representatives of other ethnic and religious blocs and could unite with them in the future.
On the Sunni side, a number of independent lawmakers said they had already broken away from the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni bloc in the Council of Representatives, or parliament, with 44 members. The new Gathering of Independent Iraqis is led by Abid Mutlaq Jabouri, a former major general in Saddam Hussein’s army, said Abdullah Eskandar, another founding member.
“We were hoping that the major blocs like the Accordance, the UIA and Kurdish Alliance would get us out of this crisis we are facing, but these groups have also turned to sectarianism,” Eskandar said. “We are trying to break out of these alliances in order to serve the interests of Iraqis.”
He claimed the support of more than 10 Sunni lawmakers, but said the group hoped to become a major opposition party, drawing in representatives of other communities.
Disputes within and among the main blocs have paralyzed parliament for months, blocking legislation governing key issues such as the division of responsibilities between Iraq’s central government and provinces, the re-integration of former members of Hussein’s regime into the government and security forces, and the distribution of the country’s massive oil wealth.
U.S. officials had urged Iraqi politicians to look beyond their traditional formations in hope of isolating more extreme leaders such as anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr, who controls one of the two largest groups in the leading Shiite bloc and is backed by a powerful militia often blamed in the sectarian violence. But members of both new blocs said U.S. officials had nothing to do with their ventures.
“I really hate that question,” said Kasim Daoud, a member of the emerging Solidarity bloc who served as national security advisor to former interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. “Our allegiance is to Iraq and the Iraqi people.”
Meanwhile, Iraqi officials released new details about an obscure messianic sect they said had been poised to attack Shiite clerics and religious sites in Najaf when it was decimated Sunday in a U.S.-Iraqi offensive.
Brig. Gen. Qais Hamza, chief of the Babil provincial police force, told reporters that members of the Heaven’s Army cult led by Dhyaa Abdul-Zahra, a charismatic man in his 30s, had infiltrated Iraq’s security forces and were able to bring advanced weapons into their compound.
“It seemed that they prepared themselves well, and it seemed that they received training outside Iraq,” Hamza said. The sect’s gunmen were organized into snipers and attackers, who fought under the slogan “Victory or Martyrdom,” he said.
“They surprised our forces in Najaf and they captured some of our troops and vehicles,” he said. But members of the Iraqi army’s elite Scorpion force freed 20 of the troops and retrieved five bodies, he said.
Most of the cult’s 1,000 to 1,500 followers came from Kut, Diwaniya and Hillah, cities south of the capital, he said. They apparently hoped to establish an emirate under another cult leader, Ahmed Alagh, identified by police as an advocate of the Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam practiced by Al Qaeda. But literature viewed by a journalist inside the compound dismissed both Sunni and Shiite teachings. Abdul-Zahra and Alagh were believed to have been killed in the fighting.
End of a violent month
At least 2,067 Iraqis were killed in insurgent and sectarian violence in January, according to figures compiled by the ministries of Defense and Health.
The heaviest toll in Wednesday’s violence was inflicted in Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi forces have pledged to clear out Sunni-led insurgents and sectarian militias in a neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweep.
A car bomb exploded on a downtown street where a crowd was waiting to catch minibus taxis to areas of Shiite-dominated east Baghdad. At least five people were killed and 12 injured, police said.
Naim Zamel, a 38-year-old father of three, was delivering goods to a shop across the street when the blast occurred.
“The sound and the pressure were hard. Shrapnel was flying all over the place,” he said from his bed at the Medical City Hospital, where he was treated for injuries to his neck, ear and leg. “I saw three cars on fire, people injured and shops destroyed.”
A car bomb in a mostly Shiite neighborhood of the capital and mortar attacks on a mostly Sunni area killed at least eight people and injured 28.
One U.S. soldier was killed and another injured in combat Wednesday in Salahuddin province north of Baghdad, the U.S. command said. Two soldiers and a Marine were reported killed the previous day in Al Anbar province, west of the capital. At least 3,084 U.S. troops have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, according to the website icasualties.org.
Special correspondents in Baghdad, Baqubah, Mosul, Najaf and Hillah contributed to this report.