Correction to This Article
In a previous edition of this story, the Post erroneously described Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, speaker of the parliament, as a Sunni Kurd. He is a Sunni Arab.

For Eminent Sunni, Lessons in Weakness

By Ernesto Londono
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 10, 2007

BAGHDAD, Feb. 9 -- Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Salam Z. al-Zobaee's cousin has been in government custody for eight months.

He hasn't been charged, Zobaee said, and the formal inquiries he himself has made to have the oil engineer released, or at least get the case before a judge, have been rebuffed.

"He was detained because they looked at him like he didn't belong here," Zobaee said during a recent interview in his spacious office in the fortified Green Zone. "He has been in detention for eight months -- and I am a deputy prime minister."

Zobaee, in principle one of Iraq's most powerful men, offers the anecdote to illustrate his powerlessness, which he says is a product of the Shiite-led government's efforts to cast aside high-ranking Sunnis like him.

Shiite political leaders say Zobaee, one of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's two deputies, deserves his placeholder status.

"He does not deserve power," said Ali al-Adeeb, a Shiite lawmaker and a senior member of Maliki's Dawa party. "His group is accused of committing terrorism, and he always gets himself involved in defending terrorism. We have [Sunni] parties that are participating in the government during the day, but they are working at night cooperating with terrorists."

The marginalization of Zobaee -- who denies being an instigator of violence -- is a prominent example of the strained relationship between Sunni and Shiite leaders, an acrimony that many see as the main obstacle to deterring violence and laying the foundation for reconciliation in Iraq.

"We need, first, reconciliation inside the government," Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament, said in an interview. "They have never sat together to have a sound dialogue to agree on who the enemy is."

Maliki and U.S. military officials say Iraqis are taking the lead role in a security plan to pacify the capital and other parts of the country. But Zobaee, who nominally oversees security affairs, said he has been all but left out of preparations for and implementation of the plan. He said it is foolhardy to put Iraqi officials at the helm.

"If you ask me, 'Do you think the multinational forces can put their faith in the hands of the Iraqi government,' I will answer you: 'No. We don't have the right army.' "

In Zobaee's estimation, Iraq is not even "50 percent" ready to roll out the plan. And he accused the Shiite-dominated government of keeping him out of the loop on matters that should be among his primary responsibilities.

"I don't have any authority," he said during an hour-long interview in which he often sounded exasperated. "And always there are obstacles in our way, and we don't find someone to listen to us."

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