Could the murder of an Iraqi lawmaker kick off a new insurgency?
As US forces begin to pull out of cities, Hareth Obeidi's assassination is sparking concern among Sunnis.
Baghdad — Despite efforts by Iraqi officials to tamp down the repercussions of the assassination of a leading Sunni lawmaker on Friday, members of Hareth Obeidi's party say the attack shows that Iraqi security forces are unable to maintain security ahead of the scheduled withdrawal of US forces and warn it could reignite sectarian violence.
"It is very clear that the Iraqi military forces are not ready yet," says Saleem al-Jbori, spokesman for Tuwafaq [Accordance], the biggest Sunni bloc in parliament. "I expect the sectarian conflict will revive."
Dr. al-Jbori, speaking inside a parliament building draped with black banners mourning the killing, says the attack in a mosque secured by government guards has reversed more optimistic views of the security situation.
Dr. Obeidi, the head of Tuwafaq, was shot at point-blank range along with his office director and three body guards after he led Friday prayers at a mosque in Western Baghdad.
"[Obeidi] was the voice of moderation," said parliamentary speaker Ayad al-Samerai as officials gathered Saturday around the flag-draped coffins in the lobby of Parliament. An honor guard, wearing white jackets and helmets, carried out the coffins in the state funeral.
Echoes of 2006?
The attack was widely blamed on Al Qaeda in Iraq, which considers Sunni politicians traitors, but the assassination has cast a wide net of suspicion that has included charges of lax security by Iraqi government security forces in charge of the area.
Politicians say it's not yet clear whether the gunman blew himself up with a grenade or was shot by guards who pursued him.
Iraq's civil war, sparked by an attack on one of the holiest Shiite shrines by Sunni insurgents in 2006, gained momentum when Iraqis unable to rely on Iraqi government forces for security turned to either Sunni extremists or Shiite militias for protection.
Fear among Sunnis
Obeidi's funeral was broadcast live on Iraqi television on Saturday. Prime Minister Nouri al Malaki and a range of other leaders called for national unity and promised a high-level investigation.
Rasheed al-Aazawy, a member of parliament with Obeidi's Iraqi Islamic Party, the major player in the Tawafaq bloc, says he was heartened by the show of unity condemning his colleague's killing. But appearing to lay the groundwork for accusations casting wider blame, Mr. al-Aazawy says they do not want to jump to conclusions that insurgent groups were behind the killing.
"We don't want to accuse anyone before we have the results of the investigation," he says.
A member of parliament unconnected with the Sunni bloc, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of the investigation, says he expects the attack to set back recent talks between Prime Minister Malaki's Dawa Party and Tuwafaq aimed at improving relations.
Dawa and Tuwafaq are part of the government's Shiite-led coalition. Tawafaq, which had demanded a greater role for Sunnis, had pulled out of the coalition before agreeing to come back in.
The lawmaker says Tuwafaq had asked members of parliament not to publicly comment on the process until the investigation was completed within the next two days.
He says there is skepticism, though, on the credibility of the investigation and any prospect that it would link Iraqi security forces in any way to the killing.
"For the past four years they have been making investigations and we haven't seen any results," he says.
Obeidi was not the first Sunni politician to be assassinated and al-Aazawy says their lawmakers regularly receive threats. Sunni extremists consider them infidels for cooperating with a Shiite-led, US-backed government.
"Now everyone understands we are the victims of terrorism," he says.
Questions over US troop withdrawal
Although Iraqi military leaders in the country's more volatile areas widely believe they still need the help of US troops, Prime Minister Malaki, reflecting popular sentiment, has decided that Iraq will not ask for exemptions from the deadline.
Parliament approved the security agreement last year only after adding on a requirement that the withdrawal dates be put to a national referendum, which could require US forces to leave Iraq sooner than the end of 2011. That referendum is expected to be postponed from July to next January. If it passes, it would speed up the withdrawal by only a matter of months, but it would send a strong political message.
Sunni groups in particular have viewed the presence of US troops as the only thing protecting them from the dominance of Shiite-led security forces and government.
"The withdrawal from all the areas is dangerous because the terrorist groups are waiting for a suitable moment to come back," says al-Jbori, who is from Diyala, which still has an active insurgency. "The exaggerated military statements we hear don't fit the reality," on the ground, he adds.
Al-Jbori says he believes that while Obeidi's assassination won't deter politicians, who live with the danger, it will discourage ordinary Sunnis from supporting the political process.
He says Obeidi, the head of Parliament's human rights committee, who was preaching for greater rights for Iraqi detainees in the moments before he died, will be difficult to replace.
"He was filling a big space in the field," says al-Jbori. "An important platform for Tuwafaq is to bring justice to people who are being treated unjustly. That gap is now empty."