Monday, September 28, 2009

Disunity Threatens Sunni Iraq by Gina Chon

A number of prominent Sunni politicians in Iraq have abandoned a once-formidable bloc, lowering expectations of significant gains in parliamentary elections that are just a few months away.

In 2005, Sunni Arab politicians largely boycotted Iraq's first parliamentary vote, and they've regretted it ever since. Shiite and Kurdish candidates swept those polls, sidelining Sunnis when it came time to assemble a government and put together provincial councils.

Sunni Arabs make up about a fifth of Iraq's population, and they constituted the ruling elite during the era of Saddam Hussein. Despite their electoral defeat in 2005, they participated in the second national elections that year and still retain a strong power base. Shiites, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have courted them to win backing for key legislation and domestic-policy initiatives.

Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, shown in July, said this month that he was quitting the Iraqi Islamic Party and forming a new party.

After many Sunni groups made peace with Mr. Maliki's government, Sunni politicians looked forward to January's election as a way to ratchet up their political standing.

Those hopes are now threatened by disunity. Several prominent politicians have recently left the biggest Sunni Arab political grouping, the Iraqi Islamic Party, or the IIP. After IIP losses to upstart rival Sunni groups in January elections, many bloc members said their political chances would improve outside the group.

The IIP is the largest bloc in an umbrella Sunni alliance known as the Iraq Accord Front, the third-largest bloc in parliament behind a Shia coalition and a Kurdish alliance.

Defections could hurt the slate as it positions itself as the main voice for the Sunni vote. It could also weaken Sunni unity and resolve in hostile disputes with Kurdish officials in Iraq's north.

Sunnis who are worried about being underrepresented in Iraqi politics have been the biggest proponents of a strong federal government in Baghdad, to check any Shiite and Kurdish encroachment. Kurds, however, have pushed forcefully for more sovereignty in the semi-independent northern enclave. Kurds have also squabbled with Sunnis over disputed land, including the oil-rich northern capital, Kirkuk.

"The Kurdish bloc is a coherent one because it shares the common goals of making Kirkuk a part of Kurdistan and other nationalistic issues," said political analyst Watheq Abdul Qadir. "That unity can hurt the Sunnis because they are not coming together as one."

This month, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi said he would leave the IIP to form a new political party, called the Renewal List.

Mr. Hashimi has said his new party strives to rise above sectarian and ethnic divisions that have defined Iraqi politics for the last several years. He hasn't named others who will join him in the new party, but he said it will be made up of tribal leaders and academics, among others.

Earlier this year, another prominent Sunni lawmaker, Omar Abdul Sattar, left the party, saying it had failed to achieve its aims.

"I found working in the party was of no use to help build Iraq," said Mr. Sattar.

Saleem Juboori, an IIP spokesman, cites "differences in vision" in these and other prominent defections. He says the IIP and the Sunni cause haven't been hurt by the moves. He said no matter what banner Sunni politicians run under, they could ultimately come together after the election as a powerful voting bloc in the next parliament.

The IIP has, for now, ruled out an alliance with Mr. Maliki, who has so far declined to join Iraq's main Shiite coalition. Mr. Maliki is widely expected to run independently, at the head of a slate of candidates from several of Iraq's ethno-sectarian groups, including Sunni tribal leaders.

IIP party officials say they are already looking at post-election maneuvering. They have held talks with Mr. Maliki and others about working together after the polls, Mr. Juboori said.

Such formal moves toward cooperation between Shiite and Sunni politicians have been almost unheard of during most of Iraq's short, post-Saddam era.

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