Lawmakers try to move beyond sectarian blocs

Sunnis, Shiites say they'll create groups to reach across lines

February 01, 2007|By Alexandra Zavis | Alexandra Zavis,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Sunni and Shiite Arab lawmakers announced plans yesterday to form two new blocs in Iraq's parliament that they hope will break away from the ethnic and religious mold of current alliances and ease sectarian strife.

But while both blocs said they hope to eventually draw in members of all ethnic and religious groups, one initially will be made up entirely of Shiite politicians and the other of Sunnis.

Moderate politicians across the sectarian divide have voiced mounting frustration at parliament's seeming impotence in the face of escalating violence that killed at least 32 Iraqis and injured dozens yesterday. The U.S. military announced the deaths of three soldiers and a Marine in fighting north and west of the capital.

A group of mostly independent legislators in the United Iraqi Alliance, the dominant Shiite faction, said that within days they will launch a new Solidarity bloc intended to be a voice of moderation within parliament's largest political formation.

Members hope to appeal "to Iraqis' patriotism and not their sect or ethnicity," said Shatha Moussawi, one of Solidarity's founding members.

Organizers claimed the support of at least 10 of the UIA's 128 legislators but said others had expressed interest in joining them. For now, the group plans to remain within the alliance. But members said they would reach out to representatives of other ethnic and religious blocs and could unite with them in the future.

On the Sunni side, a number of independent lawmakers said they have broken away from the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni bloc in parliament with 44 members. The new Gathering of Independent Iraqis is led by Abid Mutlaq Jabouri, a former major general in Saddam Hussein's army, said Abdullah Eskandar, another founding member.

"We were hoping that the major blocs, like the Accordance, the UIA and Kurdish alliance, would get us out of this crisis we are facing, but these groups have also turned to sectarianism," Eskandar said. "We are trying to break out of these alliances in order to serve the interests of Iraqis."

He claimed the support of more than 10 Sunni lawmakers but said the group hopes to become a major opposition party drawing in representatives of other communities.

Disputes within and between the main blocs have paralyzed parliament for months, blocking final legislation governing key issues such as the division of responsibilities between Iraq's central government and provinces, the reintegration of former members of Hussein's regime into the government and security forces, and the distribution of the country's vast oil wealth.

Meanwhile, Iraqi officials released new details about an obscure messianic sect that they said had been poised to attack Shiite clergy and religious sites in Najaf when it was stopped Sunday in an offensive by U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Brig. Gen. Qais Mamoory, chief of the Babil provincial police force, told reporters that members of the Heaven's Army cult led by Dhyaa Abdul-Zahra, a charismatic man in his 30s, had infiltrated Iraq's security forces and were able to bring advanced weapons into their compound.

"It seemed that they prepared themselves well, and it seemed that they received training outside Iraq," Mamoory said. The sect's gunmen were organized into snipers and attackers, who fought under the slogan "Victory or Martyrdom," he said.

At least 2,067 Iraqis were killed in insurgent and sectarian violence in January, according to figures compiled by the ministries of health, defense and health.

The heaviest toll in yesterday's violence was inflicted in Baghdad, where U.S. and Iraqi forces are promising to clear out Sunni Arab insurgents and sectarian militias in a neighborhood-by-neighborhood sweep.

One U.S. soldier was killed and another injured in combat yesterday in Salahuddin province, the U.S. command said. Two more soldiers and a Marine were reported killed the previous day in Anbar province.

Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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