BAGHDAD: Tribal leaders and clerics from Iraq’s Sunni heartland offered their conditional backing on Friday for a new government that hopes to contain sectarian bloodshed and an offensive by Islamic State militants that threatens tear the country apart.
One of the most influential tribal leaders said he was willing to work with Shia prime minister-designate Haider al-Abadi provided a new administration respected the rights of the Sunni Muslim minority that dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
Ali Hatem Suleiman left open a possibility that Sunnis would take up arms against the Islamic State fighters in the same way as he and others joined U.S. and Shia-led government forces to thwart an al Qaeda insurgency in Iraq between 2006 and 2009.
Abadi faces the daunting task of pacifying the vast desert province of Anbar. It forms much of the border with Syria, where the Islamist fighters also control swathes of territory.
Sunni alienation under outgoing Shia premier Nuri al-Maliki goaded some in Anbar to join an Islamic State revolt that is now drawing the United States and European allies back into varying degrees of military involvement in Iraq to contain what they see as a jihadist threat that goes well beyond its borders.
Iraq has been plunged into its worst violence since the peak of a sectarian civil war in 2006-2007, with Sunni fighters led by the Islamic State overrunning large parts of the west and north, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee for their lives and threatening ethnic Kurds in their autonomous province.
Winning over Sunnis will be vital to any efforts to contain the violence marked by daily kidnappings, execution-style killings and bombings.
Taha Mohammed al-Hamdoon, spokesman for the tribal and clerical leaders, told Reuters that Sunni representatives in Anbar and other provinces had drawn up a list of demands.
This would be delivered through Sunni politicians to Abadi, a member of the same Shia Islamist party but with a less confrontational reputation than Maliki, who announced on Thursday he would stand down.
Hamdoon called for the government and Shia militia forces to suspend hostilities in Anbar to allow space for talks.
“It is not possible for any negotiations to be held under barrel bombs and indiscriminate bombing,” Hamdoon said in a telephone interview with Reuters. “Let the bombing stop and withdraw and curtail the (Shia) militias until there is a solution for the wise men in these areas.”
Iraq’s most influential Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said the handover of power offered a rare opportunity to resolve the crisis.
Sistani told the country’s feuding politicians to live up to their “historic responsibility” by cooperating with Abadi as he tries to form a new government and overcome divisions among the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities that deepened under Maliki. Abadi himself, in comments online, urged his countrymen to unite and cautioned that the road ahead would be tough. Sistani, a reclusive octogenarian whose authority few Iraqi politicians would dare openly challenge, also had pointed comments for the military, which offered no serious resistance when the Islamic State staged its lightning offensive in June.
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