By Ellen Knickmeyer and Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 26, 2005
BAGHDAD, Aug. 26 -- Political violence surged Thursday along many of Iraq's ethnic and sectarian fault lines, while Shiite and Sunni Arab political leaders haggled past a third deadline without reaching accord on a draft constitution.
As the two-day death toll around Iraq reached 100, fighting between two powerful Shiite militias in the southern city of Najaf subsided, with 19 reported dead overall. The clashes Wednesday night and Thursday between the Mahdi Army, loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, and fighters allegedly linked to the government-allied Badr Organization were the deadliest between Iraqi militia forces since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
In Baghdad, 13 Iraqi police officers, 27 Iraqi civilians and an unidentified American security force member were killed when dozens of fighters believed to be former members of Saddam Hussein's security apparatus laid siege to a neighborhood late Wednesday, openly walking the district's streets in black masks and carrying AK-47s and grenade launchers, according to the U.S. military, Iraqi officials and witnesses. East of the capital, the bodies of 36 other men, their identities unknown, were found heaped Thursday near a road leading toward Iran, security officials told news agencies.
The bloodshed was spurred partly by differences among Sunni and Shiite Arabs and ethnic Kurds over the constitution, along with attempts by insurgents and Hussein loyalists to derail the political process. Laith Kubba, spokesman for Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, said the Baghdad siege in particular was a "stage-managed operation," orchestrated by supporters of Hussein intent on overshadowing work on the constitution. "They wanted the writing on the wall that they are still there," Kubba said.
While the Bush administration has pushed hard for Iraqis to stick to a timeline for approving the constitution that would show progress toward political change -- and would make U.S. troop withdrawals possible -- one negotiator said American officials Thursday appeared more intent on bringing Sunni Arabs on board than on rushing the process to its conclusion. American and Iraqi leaders have called inclusion of mainstream Sunnis in the political process an essential step toward ending the Sunni-led insurgency.
The speaker of Iraq's National Assembly, Hachim Hasani, said separately that ending the constitutional talks with Sunnis and Shiites still so far apart would only risk greater civil strife later. "It's very dangerous if Iraq cannot come to some kind of consensus on something this important," Hasani said. "Everybody doesn't want Iraq to go divided to the referendum."
Iraq's interim constitution requires a nationwide vote on the draft by Oct. 15. The National Assembly was obligated to finish it by Aug. 15, but negotiators instead engineered a one-week extension. When that deadline passed Monday, faction leaders submitted an incomplete document to the assembly and gave themselves until Thursday to produce a complete version.
Late Thursday, as negotiations continued, political leaders sent out word for assembly members to stay home, canceling the 400 dinners ordered for lawmakers and staff members. Kubba told reporters that negotiators would simply submit a finished draft by the end of the day. "The assembly will then rubber-stamp it," perhaps by Sunday, he said.
Instead, a weary Hasani appeared on state television Friday a few minutes after midnight. There was no deal, Hasani said, and meetings would resume later in the day.
"This constitution deserves to be given time," Hasani said as most of Baghdad slept or tossed on another hot night when municipal electricity was unavailable to power air conditioners. "It deserves giving it another day for everyone to be satisfied.
"We hope tomorrow we can finish this matter. The final day will be when we say this is the constitution draft which everybody agreed on."
Others involved in or close to the negotiations expressed frustration.
Some Shiite officials spoke of letting the charter go to a national vote despite the gap between factions. "The Sunnis won't meet us midway," Ali Debagh, a Shiite member of the committee, said by telephone late Thursday, as his car cleared one of Baghdad's countless checkpoints. It was time, Debagh suggested, to let the people decide.
Some Sunnis likewise described Shiites as refusing to compromise on key provisions, including one linking Hussein's former Baath Party with terrorism.
However, the most hotly disputed aspect of the constitutional talks has been federalism. While all sides agree to recognize the Kurds' existing self-rule in the north, most Sunnis hotly reject creation of a separate, largely Shiite state in the south bordering Iran, a Shiite theocracy.
"Our objection is on federalism in the south, fearing they would announce independence later -- especially those areas known to contain oil," said Mishan Jabouri, a Sunni Arab in the National Assembly.
The Bush administration, meanwhile, muted what had been daily praise of an anticipated deal. Thursday, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said, "This is an Iraqi process."
In Najaf, 5,000 followers of Sadr, the young Shiite cleric whose Mahdi Army fought U.S. forces twice last year, filled the streets for the funerals of four fighters killed in clashes Wednesday.
Sadr called on his militia to end clashes with rival Shiite fighters that, a day before, had threatened to escalate across Shiite-dominated parts of central and southern Iraq. The fighting, mainly with guns and rocket-propelled grenades, was the heaviest between rival militias since the U.S. invasion and underscored their power and reach.
"I call on all believers, may God grace them by His graciousness, to stop shedding Muslim blood and go back to their homes, may God reward them," Sadr said in a handwritten statement bearing the stamp of his office issued by his followers in Najaf.
The call appeared to end the fighting, but not before Sadr had demonstrated to rivals that his militia could strike virtually anywhere in Shiite areas of the country. But he stood down before endangering his still-tentative presence in the political process. He demonstrated a willingness, too, to engage Iraq's Kurdish president and Shiite prime minister, who appealed for him to end the clashes.
Sadr remains a wild card in the constitutional deliberations. Some Sunni leaders have praised his opposition to federalism, which he says should not be decided under occupation. But he has yet to declare to supporters his stance on the constitution.
The clashes erupted Wednesday night after about 200 protesters gathered in the old city of Najaf, one of Shiite Islam's most sacred cities, demanding that the government expel Sadr and his followers. Many in Najaf remain angry over the fighting between Sadr and U.S. forces last year that destroyed swaths of the town. During the evening, the crowd swelled to 1,000 and headed for Sadr's office, which had reopened five days earlier. Fistfights broke out between the protesters and Sadr's followers; some of Sadr's followers threw stones, witnesses said.
Armed guards from the nearby office of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's most influential cleric, then fired on Sadr's men, witnesses said. Troops arrived, mainly from the Interior Ministry, which is dominated by Sadr's rival, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and its armed wing, the Badr Organization. Sadr's office said four of his men were killed.
Amid the tumult, some protesters entered Sadr's office and set it on fire. The arson enraged Sadr's men. The office served as the headquarters of Sadr's revered father, Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq Sadr, who was assassinated with two of his sons in 1999, apparently by agents of Hussein's government.
Clashes erupted in most cities in southern Iraq: Basra, Nasiriyah, Samawah, Diwaniyah and Amarah. In Basra, the Mahdi Army poured into the streets after nightfall, armed with heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. They attacked offices belonging to the Badr Organization in the city center and outlying areas, witnesses said. In Amarah, mortar shells struck the Badr headquarters, and in Diwaniyah, Sadr supporters fired on police and rival organizations, news agencies reported.
In Baghdad, there were tit-for-tat arsons. Badr followers burned a Sadr office in a Baghdad suburb. In the Shaab neighborhood of Baghdad, dozens of Sadr followers attacked a Badr office, firing a rocket-propelled grenade at a portrait of Mohammed Bakir Hakim, the Supreme Council leader assassinated in 2003. It missed its target and struck a wall, officials there said. In Sadr City, Sadr followers torched an office.
"We'll solve the problem, God willing. We'll let reason prevail," said Abu Qassim, 40, an official at the Badr office in Shaab that was attacked.
Most of the clashes ended by dawn Thursday, except in Baqubah, a mixed Sunni-Shiite town north of Baghdad. Police there said four Sadr militiamen were killed after they attacked the local Badr office, although fighting quieted after Sadr's statement.
At a news conference in Najaf, where about 3,000 armed followers surrounded his house, Sadr said he had urged restraint because "Iraq is passing through a critical and difficult period that requires unity." But he accused the Supreme Council of instigating the attack on his father's office and demanded that its leader, Abdul Aziz Hakim, condemn "what his followers have done."
Hours later, Hakim denied that either the Supreme Council or Badr had played a role but condemned the incident. In rare words of praise for Sadr, he lauded the cleric's restraint.
In Baghdad, U.S. and Iraqi officials gave fresh details of the siege of a western neighborhood blamed on Hussein loyalists.
The insurgents began by shooting to death five people inside a Baghdad home, said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the top U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad. When Iraqi police responded, insurgents set off a series of three car bombs, Lynch said. Residents reported hours of explosions and gunfire.
Separately, police found the bodies of 36 men Thursday in a dry riverbed near the Iranian border, with their hands bound and bullet wounds in their heads, the Associated Press said. The bodies contained no identification, and police said most were clothed in the baggy trousers favored by Kurds. But when photographers arrived, they found bodies clad in normal clothing.
Staff writer Robin Wright in Washington and special correspondents Bassam Sebti in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.