By Amit R. Paley and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 3, 2006
BAGHDAD, Sept. 2 -- A coalition of 300 Iraqi tribal leaders on Saturday demanded the release of Saddam Hussein so he could reclaim the presidency and also called for armed resistance against U.S.-led forces.
The clan chieftains, most of them Sunni Arabs, included the head of the 1.5 million-member al-Obeidi tribe, said they planned to hold rallies in Sunni cities throughout the country to insist that Hussein be freed and that the charges against him and his co-defendants be dropped.
Hussein is being tried on charges of genocide and other alleged crimes arising from the Iraqi government's killing and forced relocation of ethnic Kurds in 1988, and he is awaiting a verdict in a trial that concluded in late July in the mass killings of Shiites after an assassination attempt against him in 1982.
During Hussein's dictatorship, positions of power in the military and the ruling Baath Party were held overwhelmingly by Sunni Arabs, a minority that formed the backbone of the Iraqi insurgency after Hussein was toppled in 2003.
"If the demand is not carried out, we will lead a general, sweeping and popular uprising," said Sheik Wassfy al-Assy, brother of the chief of the Obeidi tribe, which hosted a meeting of the clan leaders on Monday in Ramal, a village 55 miles southwest of Kirkuk. "As for whether [Hussein] will be reinstated in his post as president after his release, that will be up to him."
The leaders announced their demands on Saturday, as Shiite-Sunni sectarian violence and a move asserting Kurdish independence heightened fears that the country is sliding toward full-scale civil war.
Fourteen Shiite pilgrims from India and Pakistan were shot to death in front of their families as they drove this week through Anbar province, a volatile Sunni insurgent stronghold in western Iraq, on their way to the Shiite holy city of Karbala, according to Akram al-Zubaidie, a member of the Karbala city council. The Associated Press later reported that one of the victims was an Iraqi driver.
In separate incidents across Iraq, at least 18 other people were killed or found dead Saturday, authorities said.
Arabs across the country expressed anger at a decree by Massoud Barzani, president of the regional government in Kurdish-populated northern Iraq, forbidding the Iraqi flag to be raised in government buildings across the north. The government in the western part of the Kurdish region has always flown only the Kurdish flag -- red, white and green stripes emblazoned with a yellow sun -- but Barzani's order, published in newspapers this week, extends that policy to the eastern part of the region, which previously displayed both the Iraqi and Kurdish flags.
"The symptoms of division and separatism and the declaration of a Kurdish state have become apparent in the workings of the Kurdistan government," said Mustafa Tamawi, an Arab leader and human rights activist in Kirkuk. Many Arabs fear that the Kurdish north, which has been largely autonomous since 1991, will secede from the rest of the country.
Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament, said the order is intended to put pressure on the body to choose a new flag to replace the current one, which many Kurds associate with Hussein's Baath Party dictatorship.
In Baghdad, Iraqi military officials announced this weekend that the security plan designed to tamp down sectarian violence in the capital will be extended in the next two weeks into Shiite areas including Sadr City, a stronghold of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The announcement raised the possibility that entry into the Shiite slum could spark violent clashes with Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to the southern city of Najaf on Saturday to discuss the deteriorating security situation with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered Shiite leader in Iraq. Sistani's office said in a statement after the meeting that he supported Maliki's 28-step national reconciliation plan and called on the government to quickly reduce violence in the country before other groups, such as armed militias, fill the void.
"The failure of the government to carry out its duty in maintaining security and order and protecting people's lives would open the chance for other forces to carry out this task, which would be a matter of grave danger," the statement said.
Sarhan reported from Najaf. Special correspondents Naseer Nouri, Naseer Mehdawi and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.