Iraqi Sunnis Battle To Defend Shiites

By Ellen Knickmeyer and Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 14, 2005

BAGHDAD, Aug. 14 -- Rising up against insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, Iraqi Sunni Muslims in Ramadi fought with grenade launchers and automatic weapons Saturday to defend their Shiite neighbors against a bid to drive them from the western city, Sunni leaders and Shiite residents said. The fighting came as the U.S. military announced the deaths of six American soldiers.

Dozens of Sunni members of the Dulaimi tribe established cordons around Shiite homes, and Sunni men battled followers of Zarqawi, a Jordanian, for an hour Saturday morning. The clashes killed five of Zarqawi's guerrillas and two tribal fighters, residents and hospital workers said. Zarqawi loyalists pulled out of two contested neighborhoods in pickup trucks stripped of license plates, witnesses said.

The leaders of four of Iraq's Sunni tribes had rallied their fighters in response to warnings posted in mosques by followers of Zarqawi. The postings ordered Ramadi's roughly 3,000 Shiites to leave the city of more than 200,000 in the area called the Sunni Triangle. The order to leave within 48 hours came in retaliation for alleged expulsions by Shiite militias of Sunnis living in predominantly Shiite southern Iraq.

"We have had enough of his nonsense," said Sheik Ahmad Khanjar, leader of the Albu Ali clan, referring to Zarqawi. "We don't accept that a non-Iraqi should try to enforce his control over Iraqis, regardless of their sect -- whether Sunnis, Shiites, Arabs or Kurds.''

Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders and armed followers of Zarqawi have clashed before in the far west, and Sunnis and Shiites in western cities have sympathized with one another over what they have said are attempts by foreign fighters to spark open sectarian conflict. But Saturday's clash in Ramadi was one of the first times Sunni Arabs have been known to take up arms against insurgents specifically in defense of Shiites.

The dramatic show of unity in the western city came as Sunni and Shiite Arabs and ethnic Kurds in Baghdad continued negotiations over the country's constitution. They were trying to meet a Monday deadline but failing to resolve some key differences.

President Jalal Talabani, who has hosted days of closed-door talks among Iraq's factional and political leaders, said he remained hopeful the deadline could be met. "There will be no postponing of any issue," Talabani told reporters. "God willing, tomorrow the constitution will be ready."

Disputes over federalism -- particularly whether Shiites should be allowed to have a separate federal state in the south equivalent to the one the Kurds have established in the north -- remain the biggest obstacle. Sunni Arabs rigidly oppose the division, expressing fears that it would split Iraq and leave their minority stranded in the resource-poor center and west.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad sat with faction leaders throughout the day, pushing for completion by Monday, said a Sunni Arab constitutional delegate, Salih Mutlak.

The fighting in Ramadi suggested a potentially serious threat to Zarqawi's group, al Qaeda in Iraq, which is made up of Sunni extremists from inside and outside Iraq. The insurgency has increasingly targeted Shiite civilians along with U.S. and Iraqi forces, particularly with grisly suicide bombings that have killed scores of Shiites at a time. Zarqawi's followers see Shiites as rivals for power and as apostates within the broader Islamic faith.

Washington and the U.S.-backed Iraqi transitional government have worked to split mainstream Iraqi Sunnis from the radical foreign fighters, hoping to draw them away from the insurgency and into the political process that many rejected after the toppling of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government in 2003.

At midday Saturday, men with grenade launchers and AK-47s still could be seen in Ramadi's two contested neighborhoods, Sejarriyah and Tameem.

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