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The Sunni in Iraq's Shiite leadership

In interview, Tariq al-Hashemi urges greater focus on reconciliation.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 14, 2007


Tariq al-Hashemi says he cringes when he's described as Iraq's Sunni vice president.

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Mr. Hashemi, one of two vice presidents – the other, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, is Shiite – says he is trying to reach out to all Iraqis. In September, he met for the first time with Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, the reclusive Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, at his home in the holy Shiite city of Najaf. He also drafted an Iraqi National Compact – his 25-point plan to lessen sectarian and ethnic strife.

At the same time, he remains utterly at odds with the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Indeed, the standoff between the two men underscores the fact that Iraq's political leaders have not capitalized on improved security to advance what US officials here have labeled "top-down reconciliation."

Hashemi points to several grievances. Sunni Arabs, he says, have been unfairly targeted, imprisoned, and tortured. He faults Mr. Maliki's handling of the crisis with Turkey over Kurdish rebels in Iraq's north, noting that a government official told the Turks there were enough Iraqi soldiers to pursue the rebels just after Hashemi had told the Turks the opposite.

Last week, meanwhile, Maliki endorsed the resignation of six cabinet ministers from Hashemi's Sunni political alliance, the Iraqi Accordance Front, who have been boycotting the government since June. That paved the way for their replacement, though the bloc's members remain in parliament.

"The obstacle toward reconciliation today and toward many laws, including the oil and gas, is fear among Iraqis," says Hashemi, referring to the long-stalled proposed law to equitably divide the country's oil riches.

That law remains in limbo, along with numerous other benchmarks devised by Washington earlier this year to measure the Iraqi government's progress.

"What you have in Iraq now are mutual fears. Whenever we sit at the negotiating table, the Shiite is afraid of the Sunni, and the Sunni fears the Shiite, and the Kurd fears the Turkmen, and so on," adds Hashemi, who spoke with the Monitor at his office inside the tightly secured International Zone (formerly the Green Zone).

Behind his desk hang framed verses of the Koran, rendered in calligraphy. On another wall is a photo-mosaic of him, composed of miniature photos of Sunni Arab victims of sectarian killing.

Talk to former Army officers

Hashemi warns that it will be a serious blow to any hopes for reconciliation if the government carries out the death sentence, handed down by a special tribunal and upheld by an appeals court in September, against Sultan Hashem, the former defense minister during Saddam Hussein's regime, and former Army chief Hussein Rashid Muhammad, as well as Hussein's cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid.

They were convicted of genocide for their roles in a 1988 campaign against Iraq's Kurds, in which tens of thousands of people were killed. Hashemi says Mr. Hashem and Mr. Muhammad, both Sunnis, were merely military officers carrying out the orders of the political leadership. "This will ruin the Iraqi military establishment forever because this is an invitation to all military officers to question in the future the orders of politicians," he argues.

"A dialogue is taking place with former Army officers in Jordan and Syria to return," he continues. "His [Hashem's] execution is a message to them not to come back and that's it – we burn all bridges."

On Monday, the US military refused to hand over the three men to the Maliki government for hanging until, it said, authorities resolved their legal and procedural differences.