Sunni Arabs step up calls for halt to US, Iraqi operations

BAGHDAD (AP) — Sunni Arab politicians stepped up demands Sunday for an end to US and Iraqi military operations, claiming they threaten Sunni participation in next month’s elections — a key US goal. The US command announced that three more American troops have been killed.
Meanwhile, some 1,100 Iraqi lawyers said they have withdrawn from Saddam Hussein’s defence team over the slayings of two colleagues representing co-defendants of the ousted leader. Main attorneys for Saddam and his seven co-defendants had already threatened to boycott the next trial session on November 28.

US commanders have said offensive operations, especially those in the western province of Anbar near the Syrian border, are aimed at encouraging Sunni Arabs to vote in the December 15 parliamentary elections without fear of intimidation by insurgents opposed to the political process.

However, several major Sunni Arab political groups insisted Sunday that such operations risk keeping Sunni turnout low because civilians are displaced by the fighting or are too frightened to venture out to the polls.

Some of the Sunnis alleged that the Shiite-led government was intentionally carrying out operations northeast of Baghdad to prevent Sunnis from voting — a charge that Iraqi officials have denied.

“We strongly condemn the military operations and demand that they are halted immediately,” Saleh Mutlaq of the Sunni National Dialogue Front told reporters. “We demand that the United Nations, the Arab League and humanitarian organisations stop these massacres.” Ayad Izi, a member of the largest Sunni Arab Party, complained that raids by the interior ministry in religiously mixed Diyala province were politically motivated.

“Such practices are aimed at foiling the political process in the country and they ignite the strife in such areas,” said Izi of the Iraqi Islamic Party.

The interior ministry said 310 people were arrested in the raids, which followed a truck bombing in a Shiite village that killed about 20 people. It did not say whether all those arrested were Sunnis.

In a statement Sunday, the US command said two Marines were killed the day before by a bomb west of Baghdad and an American soldier died in a vehicle accident in western Iraq. The latest deaths brought to at least 2,065 the number of US military personnel who have died since the war began in 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Despite the rising casualty toll, US officials have been encouraged because so many Sunni Arab groups have decided to run in the December elections, hoping that will convince members of the Sunni-dominated insurgency to lay down their arms. That would allow US and other international troops to begin heading home next year.

Most Sunni Arabs boycotted the January 30 elections, enabling the majority Shiites and their Kurdish allies to dominate the current parliament. That in turn led to a dramatic rise in sectarian tensions and reprisal killings.

Many Sunni politicians now consider the January boycott a disaster for the community. But Sunni hardliners — including insurgents and many clerics — remain adamantly opposed to the political process. Moderates fear anger in the Sunni community over military operations could undercut arguments in favour of ballots instead of bullets.

“Our position is unchanged,” Sheikh Mohammed Bashar Faydhi, spokesman for the hard-line clerical Association of Muslim Scholars, told reporters Sunday. “We will not participle in the political process as long as the occupation exists,” although he suggested that might change if Washington offered a timetable for withdrawal.

President George W. Bush has refused to set a timetable, saying that would play into the hands of insurgents.

However, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi said Friday that US troops could begin leaving in significant numbers sometime next year.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani predicted in an interview broadcast Sunday in London that the 8,500 British soldiers could be gone by the end of 2006 — although he was not speaking for the government.

Talabani told Britain’s ITV television that no Iraqis wanted foreign troops to remain indefinitely, adding that Iraq’s own soldiers should be ready to take over from British forces in the southern provinces around Basra by the end of next year.

The statement announcing the withdrawal of the 1,100 Iraqi lawyers also said the Saddam trial should be delayed because the government is not providing sufficient protection. The government says protection was offered but the lawyers refused.

Jordanian lawyer Ziad Khasawneh, who was once part of the defence team, said the statement was issued by most of the some 1,500 Iraqi lawyers who were enlisted for Saddam’s defence — most of them helping to research legal precedents, prepare briefs and perform other tasks outside the courtroom.

In Baghdad, a senior court official, Raid Juhi, said the withdrawal would not affect the proceedings.

“The court will continue to give legal consultation through naming defence lawyers in case the defence team does not show up” on November 28, when the trial is scheduled to resume, Juhi told AP by telephone.

Saddam and seven co-defendants are on trial before a special Iraqi tribunal, charged in the 1982 deaths of 148 Shiite Muslims in Dujail after an assassination attempt against Saddam in that town north of Baghdad.

In a rare visit to Iraq, a senior Russian official said Sunday that his country will support the Iraqi government in its fight against “the common evil” of terrorism.

Igor Ivanov, head of President Vladimir Putin’s security council, said after meeting with Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari that Russia supports building a “united, democratic and prosperous Iraq.”

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