In Iraq, Regional Politics Heats Up

Nouri al-Maliki
Nouri al-Maliki (By Andreas Rentz -- Getty Images)
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By Sudarsan Raghavan and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 8, 2008

BAGHDAD -- A growing number of Iraqi groups are choosing to pursue their agendas through politics instead of bloodshed, a trend that has helped bring down levels of violence. But as Iraqis leave behind the sectarian cataclysms of recent years, ethnic and regional political disputes in several parts of Iraq are becoming more pronounced.

In the south, ruling Shiite parties are vying for electoral power against loyalists of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Shiite tribal leaders. In the west, Sunni tribes are challenging the political control of established Sunni religious parties. And in the north, ethnic Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens are in a struggle for control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

"What we have now is people who know how to use weapons and who now want to play politics," said Mithal al-Alusi, an independent Sunni legislator. Even so, some leaders seem unable to decide whether to trust their fortunes to the ballot box.

The fight over Kirkuk is proving to be particularly intense. The dispute over power sharing in the ethnically mixed city triggered an attack by a suicide bomber and ethnic clashes that killed 25 people there last month. This week, Iraqi lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on legislation for provincial elections, placing in doubt the timing of the vote and slowing political reconciliation.

"There is no doubt the violence will increase in Kirkuk if its case does not get solved," said Khalaf al-Elayan, a Sunni lawmaker who heads the Iraqi National Dialogue Council, part of the largest Sunni political bloc.

Iraqi lawmakers and U.S. officials say several factors are behind the shaky transition to more robust politics. Militant groups are tired of fighting U.S. forces and are joining the political process as a way to survive. With the Bush administration in its last months, Iraq's political parties, sensing the possible end of the U.S. presence in Iraq, want to consolidate their political standing. Others view political ascendancy as a way to exert pressure on U.S. troops to leave Iraq.

The central government's power is weakening as Iraq's tribes, sects and ethnic groups consolidate power in their own regions. They want to deepen their grip in the upcoming elections, which are expected to make provincial leaders more influential.

The elections are especially vital to Iraq's disenfranchised Sunnis, who boycotted the last provincial elections in 2005. Political groups are coming forward to compete with traditional parties for the community's leadership.

Last month, in the city of Fallujah in Anbar province, once the nexus of the Sunni insurgency, the newest political player emerged. Leaders of al-Nassir Salah al-Din Army, a Sunni militant group, declared they would renounce violence and form a political party called the National Front of Iraq's Liberals to compete in elections. "We found out that armed action will not get the United States out of Iraq," said Majid Ali Enad, the group's leader. "After five years of directing painful blows to them, they did not budge from a single meter in the country."

The National Front and other onetime insurgent groups will join a bitter struggle for power between established Sunni politicians of the Iraqi Islamic Party and upstart leaders of the Sahwa, or "Awakening" council, a U.S.-backed tribal alliance whose popularity has grown following its success in combating the group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

"Entering the elections is to change the current reality in our area, the domination of the Sunni spectrum by the Iraqi Islamic party," said Effan al-Issawi, the top Awakening commander in Fallujah. "They are unworthy of leading the Sunnis."

Political observers viewed the recent decision by the Iraqi Islamic Party and other Sunni groups to rejoin the cabinet of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as an attempt to preserve influence. The party and the other Sunni groups make up the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc.

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