Iraq Leader and Sunni Officials in Clash on Security
Published on Friday, January 26, 2007 by the New York Times
Iraq Leader and Sunni Officials in Clash on Security
by Marc Santora
 

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Shiite prime minister and Sunni lawmakers hurled insults at one another during a raucous session of Parliament on Thursday, with the prime minister threatening a Sunni lawmaker with arrest and the Sunni speaker of Parliament threatening to quit.

The uproar revolved around the new Baghdad security plan, but it came as the prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, is under increasing pressure to demonstrate evenhandedness. President Bush’s new strategy for Iraq hinges in large measure on the Iraqi government’s ability to rein in both Shiite and Sunni militants.

In Parliament on Thursday, Mr. Maliki focused his anger on Sunni lawmakers, accusing one of being involved in sectarian kidnappings. The confrontation erupted after Mr. Maliki described the outlines of the new Baghdad security plan and pledged there would be no “safe haven” for militants.

The leader of a powerful Sunni bloc, Abdul Nasir al-Janabi, provoked Mr. Maliki, saying over jeers from Shiite politicians, “We cannot trust the office of the prime minister.”

His microphone was quickly shut off, and Mr. Maliki lashed into him, essentially accusing him of being one of the outlaws he had just said would not be granted sanctuary.

“I will show you,” Mr. Maliki said, waving his finger in the air. “I will turn over the documents we have,” implying that the legislator was guilty of crimes.

While the politicians battled in Parliament, the sectarian battle on the streets went on unabated, with 25 people killed by a suicide car bomb in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad.

It was the latest in a series of attacks directed at Shiites, claiming more than 200 lives in little more than a week and increasing pressure on Mr. Maliki to restrain his supporters from exacting revenge. Sunni leaders and critics of the administration’s strategy remain deeply skeptical about Mr. Maliki’s ability or desire to confront the Shiite militias, particularly the Mahdi Army of Moktada al-Sadr, one of his most important political backers.

American military officers say they have seen evidence in the past of the Maliki government using its influence with Iraq’s security forces to further a sectarian agenda, turning a blind eye to Shiite militia death squads while cracking down on Sunni insurgents.

Mr. Maliki spent much of his speech before Parliament trying to counter that image, going further than he has before by promising to stop sectarian militias from driving rivals out of their neighborhoods and to return houses to their rightful owners. It is a daunting challenge given that the map of Baghdad has been almost completely redrawn along sectarian lines over the past year, displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

“Let it be known today or tomorrow, we will start arresting anybody who took by force the house of a displaced family,” he said.

The prime minister’s claims were challenged by Mr. Janabi, who leads the Sunni-dominated Tawafiq Party.

Mr. Janabi, over jeers from the Shiite politicians in the room, said that the government should suspend executions, which he said were being used for political purposes, and called for parliamentary oversight of the new security plan to be sure Sunnis were not unfairly singled out.

It was when he questioned Mr. Maliki’s trustworthiness that the prime minister issued his vague threat to turn over incriminating information about Mr. Janabi. With that, the speaker of Parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni, slammed his gavel down and condemned the prime minister and those who applauded him.

“That is unacceptable, Mr. Prime Minister,” Mr. Mashhadani said over the tumult. “It is unacceptable, Mr. Prime Minister, to make such accusations against a lawmaker under the dome of Parliament.”

But Mr. Maliki pressed on.

“What about the 150 people kidnapped near Al Bairaat?” he said, referring to an area by a lake south of Baghdad where Mr. Janabi has his base of support.

Mr. Janabi could not be reached for comment but another member of his party, Dhafer al-Ani, said Mr. Maliki was trying to “terrify” his opponents into silence. “If there are documents against him showing crimes, why were they not revealed until this session?” he said in an interview. “What kept him silent all this time?”

In the Parliament room, politicians shouted over one another trying to be heard. Mr. Mashhadani finally yelled for everyone to “shut up.” He then used an ancient Arabic phrase, literally meaning to “put your stuff on the camel,” which roughly translates as, “We expect more of this body.” He said in disgust, “I cannot see how it is possible that a new security plan can work.”

The session of Parliament was attended by nearly all members, a rarity in recent months, and was broadcast live on Iraqi national television.

The lawmakers had their shouting match while sitting beneath a banner with a phrase from the Koran that extols the importance of a civil debate in making good decisions.

Shatha al-Mousawi, a lawmaker from the Mr. Maliki’s leading Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, said some politicians were simply grandstanding for the cameras. But she said the fighting continued after Mr. Mashhadani abruptly called an end to the session and the cameras were turned off.

Mr. Mashhadani demanded that the prime minister apologize to Mr. Janabi. Members of Mr. Maliki’s party said Mr. Janabi was the one who should apologize, Ms. Mousawi said.

Mr. Mashhadani then threatened to quit.

“Someone said you do not need to quit, we will dismiss you,” she said.

Mr. Mashhadani called a Shiite politician a “psychopath,” as the bitter exchanges continued.

Eventually, though, the tensions eased and Parliament approved the security plan.

No sooner had they finished their business than three rockets exploded in the heavily fortified Green Zone, where Parliament is housed. Lou Fintor, a spokesman for the United States Embassy, said that no one was killed in the attacks.

The car bomb attack occurred just outside the Green Zone, ripping apart a market area in the heavily Shiite neighborhood of Karrada.

Um Mohammed, a woman who lives across the street from the site of the bombing, said she saw two buses full of people burn with the passengers trapped inside, dying agonizing deaths.

The attack occurred as people were leaving work, the streets crowded with traffic and local clothes stores packed with customers.

Her neighbor had just sent her 9-year-old boy, Amar Ali Habib, out to play with friends, she said.

“He took his ball and left the house.”

Moments later, he was dead. The explosion was so powerful, she said, that pieces of one man’s body were blown about 50 yards from where the car detonated.

Afterward, she said, many young men took to the streets. Some called for vengeance against Sunnis while others condemned the government for failing to do anything.

Qais Mizher, Abdul Razzaq al-Saiedi and Khalid al-Ansary contributed reporting.

© Copyright 2007 New York Times

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