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Sunni Party Leaves Iraqi Government Over Falluja Attack

New York Times
November 9, 2004

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 elections.

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 telephone interview.

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. Sunni Party Leaves Iraqi Government Over Falluja Attack 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 government. "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 heartland. 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.

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