Sunni Party Leaves Iraqi Government Over Falluja
By EDWARD WONG
Published: November 10, 2004
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BAGHDAD, Iraq, Nov. 9 - In the first major political backlash over the
assault on Falluja, the country's most prominent Sunni political party
said Tuesday that it was withdrawing from the interim Iraqi government,
while the leading group of Sunni clerics called for Iraqis to boycott
the nationwide elections scheduled for early next year.
The moves seemed to promise that popular protest against the
American-led attack on the city, which is predominantly Sunni Muslim, is
likely to grow in coming days.
A widespread Sunni boycott of the January elections, if one comes to
pass, would threaten the legitimacy of the outcome. It would also
undermine the main rationale for the attack on Falluja: to drive
insurgents out of the city so residents could freely take part in the
The Sunni Arabs, who make up about 20 percent of the population, were
ousted from power with the toppling of Saddam Hussein. They have
expressed ambivalence about taking part in the elections, though
American and Iraqi officials say their participation is crucial to the
entire democratic enterprise, and to defeating the insurgency.
The developments on Tuesday will almost certainly dampen voter turnout,
but to what degree is unclear.
"The clerics call on honorable Iraqis to boycott the upcoming election
that is to be held over the bodies of the dead and the blood of the
wounded in cities like Falluja," said Harith al-Dhari, director of the
Muslim Scholars Association, a group of Sunni clerics that says it
represents 3,000 mosques.
Hours earlier, the group issued a religious edict ordering Iraqi
security forces not to take part in the siege. Of course, there is
always a chance that clerics could rescind their call for a boycott, but
the group has until now been fairly uncompromising in its dealings with
the Americans and the interim Iraqi government.
Just as ominous was the withdrawal of the Iraqi Islamic Party from the
interim government. The party was a member of the Iraqi Governing
Council set up by the Americans during the occupation and has been held
up by American and Iraqi officials as a model of Sunni participation in
the political future of the country. In recent weeks, its leader, Mohsen
Abdul Hameed, had been saying he intended to take part in the elections.
"After the attack on Falluja, we decided to withdraw from the government
because our presence in the government will be judged by history," Mr.
Abdul Hameed, an interim National Assembly member, said Tuesday in a
The move so alarmed Prime Minister Ayad Allawi that he met privately
with Mr. Abdul Hameed hours later. But the party stuck to its position,
and an aide said in the afternoon that it was not clear that the group
would take part in the elections.
"We haven't decided to withdraw from the elections; we're still going
forward with the process," the aide, Ayad al-Samarrai, said. "But it
will all depend on the general situation in Iraq."
Juan Cole, a Middle East historian at the University of Michigan, wrote
on his Web log that Mr. Abdul Hameed's move "raises the question of
whether a mass Sunni Arab boycott of the elections is in the offing,
thus fatally weakening the legitimacy of any new government."
Adding to the growing tension, Moktada al-Sadr, the popular Shiite
Muslim cleric who has led two uprisings against the Americans, said
through a spokesman that the attack on Falluja "is an attack on all the
Iraqi people," and that Iraqis must not help the American forces.
Last April, as the Marines made their first ill-fated assault on Falluja,
Mr. Sadr ignited a bloody uprising in the south against the Americans
and proclaimed his support for the people of Falluja. The leaders of
Falluja reciprocated by backing Mr. Sadr's insurgency. That rare moment
of cooperation between Sunni and Shiite guerrillas led to one of the
greatest crises of the occupation.
American and Iraqi officials approved the latest offensive in Falluja
with an understanding of the political problems it could provoke.
In April, disputed reports of civilian casualties in Falluja ignited
protests across the Middle East and transformed the siege into a symbol
of the evils of the occupation.
Within days, three prominent Sunni politicians - Hajim al-Hassani, a
deputy in the Iraqi Islamic Party; Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, now the Iraqi
president; and Adnan Pachachi, a former exile - threatened to resign
from the Governing Council, a move that helped push the Bush
administration to halt the invasion after four days.
Mr. Hassani, an economist who is now the minister of industry, said in
an interview on Tuesday that he had resigned from the Iraqi Islamic
Party rather than take part in the group's decision to withdraw from the
"Nobody is in favor of using force, but the problem is you need
sovereignty over all the parts of Iraq," he said. "I haven't heard any
party come up with a single suggestion that we can solve the problems in
these places without using force."
But Mr. Hassani acknowledged that the siege of Falluja, if it inspires
public outrage and more political protests like the ones on Tuesday,
could jeopardize Sunni turnout and derail the elections.
"We have to wait and find out how things are going to go," he said. "If
we can solve the Falluja problem very fast and without trouble in other
areas, it might work. But I don't know what will happen."
Mr. Pachachi, a secular Sunni, said in an interview on Al Arabiya, an
Arab satellite network, that he believed that the invasion of Falluja
would have "serious consequences," but also said the interim government
had tried and failed to reach a peaceful solution.
"I had hopes that negotiations would continue, and I don't know whether
all peaceful methods were exhausted or not," he said.
At the same time, Mr. Pachachi said, bringing Falluja under government
control would help the residents of the area take part in the elections.
He said his relatively small party, the Movement of Independent Iraqi
Democrats, would still take part, and said political groups "should know
that anyone who boycotts the elections will be the loser."
Tensions over the elections flared as well in the southern Shiite
Police officers in the holy city of Karbala said they had arrested seven
aides of Mahmoud al-Hassani, a radical anti-American Shiite cleric who
is close to Mr. Sadr and has issued an edict calling for an election
boycott. The police said they had raided Mr. Hassani's office in hopes
of catching him but he had disappeared.
An Iraqi employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from
Karbala for this article.