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In Iraq, Political Ambiguity

Old Alliances Shift After January Vote

Members of the Sunni Awakening group searched a motorist at a vehicle checkpoint in northern Baghdad on Monday. The U.S.-backed Awakening group is at the center of contradictory but potentially groundbreaking political courting.
Members of the Sunni Awakening group searched a motorist at a vehicle checkpoint in northern Baghdad on Monday. The U.S.-backed Awakening group is at the center of contradictory but potentially groundbreaking political courting. (By Khalid Mohammed -- Associated Press)
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Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 4, 2009; Page A07

RAMADI, Iraq -- In the wake of clashes this week that pitted government forces against U.S.-backed Sunni fighters in Baghdad, the divergent views of two of the fighters' leaders brought to light two visions of the direction Iraqi politics are headed.

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One belonged to Karim Hussein, known as Abu Maarouf, who holds sway in the outskirts of Baghdad, the kind of place where a skittish soldier can be seen carrying an assault rifle in each hand. The Shiite-led government, he said, is out to destroy the Awakening, the name for Sunni fighters and former insurgents who joined hands with the U.S. military. "Not only the government, but the American forces, too," he declared.

The other view belonged to Ahmed Abu Risha, brother of the slain founder of the Awakening. That same government, he said, was absolutely right to crack down on the fighters in Baghdad and arrest their leader. "No one is above the law," Abu Risha said.

Politics in Iraq have long been facilely described as a competition among Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab and Kurd. Divisions have long beset each community. But as Hussein and Abu Risha's views suggest, at no time since the fall of President Saddam Hussein six years ago have politics been so fluid and old assumptions so discredited, with traditional alliances crumbling and new ones emerging in the wake of January's provincial elections. Iraq's politicians are trying to forge the grand coalition that can deliver victory in national elections by January.

No one seems to trust the other, but many politicians speak about agreeing on a formula emphasizing Iraqi nationalism, a strong state and an ostensible rejection of the sectarian and ethnic divisions that have dominated Iraq since 2003.

Former prime minister Ayad Allawi is negotiating with Abu Risha, who is in turn eager for an alliance with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. All three are talking, sometimes through mediators, with Shiite followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, whose militia Allawi and his U.S. allies once battled. In a visit unimaginable a year ago, Iraq's Sunni vice president visited a hospital this week in the Sadr City section of Baghdad that is the stronghold of Sadr's militia.

"Everyone is trying to reach out to everyone else," Allawi said.

Allawi said he didn't foresee a deal until this summer, and some have predicted that alliances may eventually fall back along sectarian and ethnic lines. But the talks have consumed so much of politicians' attention that many believe parliament will set aside action on crucial legislation like revenue sharing and hydrocarbons until after the vote.

The negotiations seem to be building on coalitions between unlikely forces in provincial councils -- for instance, loyalists of influential Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq, who draws the backing of supporters of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, and Maliki's State of Law coalition, which won a majority of seats on the council in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, and emerged as the single biggest bloc in Baghdad and four other provinces.

Maliki and Sadr have also agreed to work together, though many of the coalitions seem driven as much by pragmatism as ideology. While Sadr has allied with Maliki in Babil province, Sadr officials say they also expect to reach an agreement with their erstwhile foes in the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq in Maysan province.

In Baghdad and western Iraq, Karim Hussein and Abu Risha demonstrate the contradictory but potentially groundbreaking courting going on among Sunnis grouped under the banner of the Awakening, whose support was crucial in defeating the insurgency. Both display the flag of Saddam Hussein's old government but share little else.

Next to Karim Hussein's house in Radwaniyah, on the outskirts of Baghdad, spills the wreckage of a building destroyed in a U.S. strike in 2005. "Long live the mujaheddin," is scrawled on it. "We will avenge the American infidel state."

Hussein pledges loyalty to the Americans and Maliki but remains suspicious. Last month, Iraqi security forces raided his house, arresting his son and brother. "When they're finished with you, they toss you to the side," he complained.

At his compound in Ramadi, Abu Risha dismissed Hussein as a militiaman. "We don't want to build militias," he said. "I'm not a militia leader. I'm a politician."

Asked whether he envisioned an alliance with Maliki in the coming elections, Abu Risha answered, "Without a doubt." "If he's willing, we have no objection," he said. "If this project will keep Iraq united and on the path of reconciliation, we support it."

He said an alliance was possible that might draw together Mutlaq's Sunni supporters, Maliki's Shiite-led coalition, Arab nationalists in the restive northern city of Mosul and even followers of Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia is widely blamed by Sunnis for playing a gratuitous role in the sectarian bloodletting of 2006 and 2007.

"There is work toward this alliance," Abu Risha said.

Salah al-Obeidi, a Sadr spokesman, said the movement began tentative talks with Awakening leaders through tribal intermediaries at the beginning of the year. While Abu Risha said he wanted to determine the status of Sadr's militia before any agreement, Obeidi said Sadr's followers were worried that Abu Risha and other Awakening leaders were too close to the United States, Sadr's traditional enemy, and too hostile to neighboring Iran.

But he insisted Sadr's followers were still looking to bridge the religious divide. "We don't want to go back to sectarian work," he said. "We don't want that. We want to work with others. Let it be two or three new alliances, not like before."

Perhaps most mercurial so far has been Maliki. Officials of his Dawa party acknowledge his outreach to Mutlaq, Sadr, the Awakening and others. But he seems to be guarding the capital his success in the provincial elections delivered him, and the opacity of his intentions has generated suspicion among his rivals.

Even as Maliki has courted Sadr's followers, Obeidi and others have accused the prime minister of dragging his feet in releasing their loyalists and of backing a campaign of arrests against their supporters in Basra, Karbala and Diwaniyah. Maliki has maintained a channel to the rival Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, humbled by its poor performance in the January election. Iraqi officials say Maliki also plans to send a delegation to the northern city of Irbil next week in an attempt to reconcile with Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdish region. Their animosity has emerged as one of Iraq's most combustible disputes, and Allawi has sought to build on it by reaching out to the Kurds.

Some of Maliki's rivals insist he eventually will have to succumb to what they describe as pressure from Iran and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the preeminent Shiite cleric in Iraq, to recreate the overarching Shiite alliance that competed in the 2005 vote, though perhaps on Maliki's terms this time. Others see Maliki's ambitions as greater.

"He has proven to be the ultimate opportunist," said a senior Iraqi official, who was interviewed on the condition of anonymity in order to speak frankly about Maliki. "He has no permanent enemies, and he has no permanent friends."




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