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    Middle East
     Jan 26, 2010
Sunnis scramble for allies
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - United States Vice President Joseph Biden landed in Baghdad on Friday amid speculation that he might help hammer out differences between Sunnis and Shi'ites ahead of Iraq's March 7 parliamentary elections.

Sunni politicians are furious at having a number of their candidates disqualified by the Accountability and Justice Committee, with the silent blessing of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The list of 511 banned candidates in fact includes more Shi'ite politicians than Sunnis, but a number of senior Sunnis are included.

According to reports from Baghdad, the blacklist could snowball to include 6,000 candidates, with many more former Ba'athists


and secular Sunnis who are challenging Maliki's State of Law Coalition included.

Biden made it plain, though, that he would not get involved. "I want to make clear I am not here to resolve that issue [of the banned candidates]. This is for Iraqis, not for me ... The United States condemns the crimes of the previous regime and we fully support Iraq's constitutional ban on the return to power of Saddam's Ba'ath party," Biden was reported as saying.

Given this, Sunnis will have to search for allies elsewhere. Shi'ite politicians are divided: either silent about the disqualifications or vocally supportive of them - with only a handful saying that these Sunni politicians were as entitled to holding a parliamentary seat as any of their Shi'ite compatriots.

Maliki and his team are afraid, with due right, that the power they obtained through the elections of 2005 might be taken away from them at the polling stations if Sunnis run and vote en masse in the elections.

Iran, which generously supported Shi'ites in the 1980s and 1990s, might be too busy with its own problems in 2010 to worry about its Iraqi proxies. In the 1920s, when modern Iraq was first founded, it was the Shi'ites who boycotted elections and this single action resulted in eight decades of Sunni rule that lasted until the downfall of Saddam in 2003.

Two years later, Sunnis boycotted the elections, resulting in the overwhelming victory of the Iran-backed United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a coalition of seven Shi'ite parties that included the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), al-Dawa and the Sadrists. Maliki wants to make sure that the results of 2005 are repeated in 2010 and he will resort to unorthodox means, like banning his adversaries from running for power, to achieve that result. Otherwise, his days in the premiership are clearly numbered.

Disqualified Sunni politicians are frantically looking for regional allies to back their claims, but it might be advisable for them look within Iraq for potential Shi'ite allies who share a desire to bring down Maliki. Potential allies are two hopefuls for the premiership: vice president and head of the SIIC, Adel Abdul Mehdi, and former prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Mehdi has had his eyes set on the premiership since 2006, but was famously defeated by a single vote within the UIA.

Jaafari was ejected from power that same year, accused by many of being responsible for the sectarian unrest after the February 2006 bombing of a holy Shi'ite shrine in the mixed town of Samarrah. Both are heavyweights within the Shi'ite community; the powerful business elites back Mehdi while Jaafari is supported by influential clerics such as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Although both men are not exactly enthusiasts of bringing Sunnis back into the top levels of power, they nevertheless have tried at different intervals since 2005 to accommodate Sunnis, with the common target of bringing down the prime minister. Both men have realized that pushing Sunnis into the wilderness in 2003 was a bad idea, given that Iraq cannot be ruled solely by Shi'ite politicians. Their claim is supported by another Shi'ite heavyweight, Muqtada al-Sadr, who is a member of the Iraqi National Alliance that includes the SIIC and Jaafari.

If these three statesmen, Mehdi, Muqtada and Jaafari, come out to challenge the disqualifications - regardless of whether or not they believe in them - then it would be very difficult for the Accountability and Justice Committee to push ahead with the bans.

President Jalal Talabani has also questioned the legality of the disqualifications, claiming that no such regulatory authority was mandated by parliament. He nevertheless is unimpressed with Biden showing up to attempt to dictate solutions, claiming that with George W Bush out of office, there is very little the Americans can impose on ordinary Iraqis.

A combined internal effort is what all Iraqis need to solve the existing gridlock, otherwise, if the ban continues, Sunnis are going to boycott the elections and return to the underground. This could lead to a war on the streets of Baghdad and beyond that would spell disaster for Maliki or whoever succeeds him.

Jaafari knows that very well out of experience, since it was the Sunni insurgency that brought down his government in 2006. The Sunnis are saying that they are now capable of winning the state through the ballot box, rather than with bullets, but to do this they have to be given their right to run in the elections.

Bringing them into the power circles, and having them help shoulder responsibility for security and nation-building, is the only way to prevent them from becoming a state-within-a-state. Biden can no longer deliver in Iraq - and neither can President Barack Obama, who is preparing to withdraw his troops and thereby his ability to influence others.

Iraq's politicians, who will outlive the Americans in Baghdad, hold the keys to stability for the years to come and that can only be achieved when Sunnis participate fully in the political process.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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