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IRAQ: Sunni roadblock to U.S. security agreement

November 15, 2008 | 11:13 am

Iraq’s Vice President Tariq Hashimi and his Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party could very well prove to be the force that blocks a U.S.-Iraq security agreement from being signed this year. Hashimi insisted this month that the pact be put before a popular referendum. His party members concede such a referendum would not be possible until sometime next year.

TariqhashimiHashimi (right) indicated his stance at the same time Shiite lawmakers close to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki have made clear they are now supporting an agreement for U.S. forces to stay in the country for another three years.

Without Hashimi’s Iraqi Islamic Party,  Shiite lawmakers, close to Maliki, have said that it makes no sense to bring the pact to a vote in parliament  The ruling Shiite coalition said it wants the country’s main groups – the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds -- to agree to the text.

The fact that Sunnis are not backing the agreement is a possible excuse for Maliki,  he could escape blame if the agreement is not approved before the end of December. Confidantes to the prime minister indicated only Friday that Maliki was now lobbying for the text, after months of ambiguity. The lawmakers said Maliki planned to back the agreement in a cabinet meeting, tentatively scheduled for Sunday, with hopes of swiftly sending it to parliament for a vote.

Sunni lawmakers said it was the prime minister’s fault that the situation had become so dire.

“I think we are being forced to postpone it whether we like it or not because of the time limitation,” said lawmaker Omar Abdul Sattar Karbouly, a member of Hashimi’s Iraqi Islamic Party.

He warned the smartest move was to have a referendum. He faulted Maliki for waiting so long to bring matters to a head.  “The government should have used its time wisely to inform parties about what was happening,” Karbouly said.

He explained the referendum could be held early next year and a new UN Security Council resolution could authorize the American presence until Iraqis vote on the security pact.

Karbouly warned if there isn’t clear Sunni backing, Iraq could see a return to the bloodshed of recent years when Sunni fighters battled U.S. forces.  “If America doesn’t want violence to return, follow up with the referendum,” he said. The Iraqi Islamic Party has made clear its position to the U.S. embassy, he added.

Already prominent Sunni clerics living in exile have weighed in against the text, including Jordan-based Sheik Hareth Dhari, the head of the Sunni Muslim Scholars' Association, long suspected of links to armed groups.  A religious decree from an aging Iraqi cleric, Abdul Kareem Zaidan, living in Yemen, has also stoked tensions. Zaidan has ties to the Iraqi Islamic Party through his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, the religious-social organization, with followers across the Arab world. Many Iraqi Islamic Party members have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Karbouly denied the religious decrees had affected his party.

Some Shiite officials believed the Sunni lawmakers are afraid of being targeted by car bombings and assassinations by Sunni militants, who view them as traitors. The Iraqi Islamic Party dropped out of January 2005 elections, after being faced with religious decrees calling on Sunnis to boycott and repeated attacks.

-- Ned Parker in Baghdad

Photo: Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi speaks during a news conference at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo last year. Credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images