US tries to loosen Shiite grip in Iraq

Sunni Arabs gain American backing in negotiations to form a new government.

One month after Iraq's Dec. 15 election, a shift is afoot that will probably weaken Shiite political clout as the country's factions enter serious negotiations to form a new government.

Increasingly, the US is throwing its weight in Iraq behind Sunni Arabs, about 20 percent of the country, to ensure they are part of a new coalition government.

Analysts say the US is convinced reconciliation with Sunni Arabs will help stop the insurgency. There is also an American unease with the growing influence of Iran on Iraq's dominant Shiite bloc.

But Shiite leaders have responded defiantly, threatening unflinching stands that could push the country closer to full-scale civil war.

Most notably, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), among the most influential Shiite leaders, last week rejected any major changes to the Iraqi Constitution.

The right to amend the Constitution was a last-minute US-brokered clause instrumental to getting Sunni Arabs on board with the document.

"These statements are another indication that the Shiite political parties are not having the upper hand in the approach they are taking," says Saad Jawad, a political scientist at Baghdad University, and a self-identified Arab nationalist.

Leading Sunni Arab politicians have also alleged that fraud in last month's elections cost them a number of parliamentary seats. Monday, Iraq's Electoral Commission threw out the results from 227 ballot boxes, a decision the commission said would have little effect on final results to be announced Friday.

While it's clear Shiites will dominate Iraq's new parliament, their alliance may fall short of an absolute majority.

Shiites prepare to protect power

It's not just political angling and backroom dealings that are threatening Shiite influence, Mr. Jawad says. Since they control much of the government today, the Shiites are also paying politically for the recent three-fold spike in gas prices, which caused a price hike on everything from tomatoes to hair-care products.

"In the street, [Shiite politicians] have lost support because of the increase in oil prices, and the decrease in electricity supply," he says. "Things are playing against the Shiites' wishes."

In the SCIRI headquarters in Baghdad, Redha Taki, does not speak with the confidence one might expect from a leading member of Iraq's most popular political party, the anchor of a coalition that dominated last month's vote. Rather, he speaks like a man under siege.

He says the US, England, Iraq's Sunni Arabs, and his neighboring Arab countries are conspiring to undo Shiite gains.

"We are threatening that maybe in the future we will use other means, because we have a true fear," he says. "It's not possible that we are going to go back to how it was three years ago, ruled by Baathists and Saddamists with a new name. We won't accept it."

He dresses like a statesman in a tailored suit, but when talk turns to US dealings with Sunni Arab insurgents, he speaks like a soldier.

"I am prepared to go down into the streets and take up arms and fight to prevent the Baathist dictators and the terrorists from coming back to power," says Mr. Taki, whose son and two brothers were killed by Saddam Hussein's henchmen.

By contrast, Naseer al-Any is at ease at the Iraqi Islamic Party's compound in Baghdad. Just one month ago, he and fellow Sunni Arab leaders were screaming about electoral fraud, organizing demonstrations, and threatening further unrest if their complaints were not heeded. That rhetoric has mellowed.

"We are convinced that we are in a powerful position now," he says. "There is a change in the way the Americans deal with us, there is a dialogue between us for the sake of saving this country."

But even with the US striving to rein in Shiite influence, and increase the Sunni Arab share in the political balance here, many analysts say the US no longer has the political sway to do so.

"Clearly the only good way out of this for us is to try and rebalance the political forces in Iraq in order to get the Sunni population to stop supporting the guerrillas," says Long, the former US intelligence official.

"The Shiites want to retain the power that we have given to them through this democratic process.... I think it's gone past the point where we'd have any influence to enforce such a deal. I don't think we could make a deal like that stick."

US negotiates with insurgents

The US has similarly stepped up negotiations with some insurgent groups, seeking to separate extremist groups such as Al Qaeda, from disgruntled Iraqi nationalists, who are more willing to compromise and can probably be appeased through political negotiations.

"I think the realization has gradually sunk in that an insurgency situation like this is in fact essentially a political matter," says W. Patrick Long, the former head of Middle Eastern intelligence for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

"So the US government now, and [US Ambassador Zalmay] Khalilzad have finally decided that the only way to stop the fighting and stabilize the situation in Iraq is to make sure that the Sunnis have an acceptable level of power in the country, and that's what they're trying to do," he says.

The new US approach is evident in officials' shifting discourse about the insurgency.

In the past, the US tended to refer to Iraq's armed groups as holdouts and terrorists. Now, that rhetoric is changing. After meeting with US officials and officers in Baghdad, columnist Roger Cohen concluded in The New York Times that the Iraqi resistance is "composed for the most part of people who want jobs and a stake in the new Iraq."

In the past, it was the oppression and marginalization of Shiites lamented by columnists such as Mr. Cohen. Not so today.

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