- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2005

BAGHDAD — U.S. Marines and Iraqi security forces opened an offensive yesterday against insurgents in cities west of Baghdad after two days of carnage that left nearly 100 people dead.

On the political front, Sunni tribal leaders from six provinces issued demands for participation in the next government — which will be heavily dominated by Shi’ites — and a role in drafting a new constitution.

Al Jazeera television meanwhile aired a videotape purporting to show al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri denouncing U.S. calls for reform in the region and urging the West to respect the Islamic world.

The military operation was under way in several Euphrates River cities in Anbar province, including Heet, Hadithah and the provincial capital Ramadi, where authorities imposed a nighttime curfew, the military said. Barricades were erected in several areas of Baghdad.

The actions followed a wave of suicide attacks on Saturday that killed 55 persons as Iraqi Shi’ites commemorated the seventh-century death of a leader of their Muslim sect. Similar attacks Friday killed 36 persons and injured dozens.

A powerful Sunni organization thought to have ties with the insurgency condemned the attacks, saying all Iraqis should unite “against those who are trying to incite hatred between us.”

“We won’t remain silent over those crimes which target the Iraqi people — Sunnis or Shi’ites, Islamic or non-Islamic,” Sheik Harith al-Dhari of the Association of Muslim Scholars said.

About 70 Sunni tribal leaders met in a central Baghdad hotel to devise a strategy for participation in a future government even though Sunnis won only a handful of seats in the new National Assembly.

“We made a big mistake when we didn’t vote,” said Sheik Hathal Younis Yahiya, 49, a representative from northern Nineveh where — as in other Sunni areas — the turnout in the Jan. 30 elections was very low. “Our votes were very important.”

He said threats from terrorists — not a boycott called by Sunni religious leaders — kept most Sunnis from voting. Sunnis make up 20 percent of Iraq’s population of 26 million compared to the Shi’ite’s 60 percent.

On the Shi’ite side, negotiations continued within the clergy-backed United Iraqi Alliance, which will have a majority in the new National Assembly, to decide on their candidate for prime minister.

The two main candidates are the former Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi, a secular Shi’ite, and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the vice president. The decision will be made in a vote of the alliance’s 140 delegates to the new assembly.

“I believe I have a majority of the votes on my side right now,” Mr. Chalabi said yesterday on ABC’s “This Week” with George Stephanopoulos, but many analysts doubt his claim.

Al-Zawahri, in the new videotape, directly challenged the U.S. goal of spreading democracy through actions like the Iraq elections.

Sitting on the ground in front of a brown background, he said the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, “explains the truth about reforms and democracy that America alleges it wants to impose in our countries.”

“Reform is based on American detention camps like Bagram, Kandahar, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. It will be based on cluster bombs and imposition of people like Karzai and Allawi,” he said, referring to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

“Real security is based on mutual cooperation with the Islamic nation on the basis of mutual respect and the stopping of aggression.”

Shi’ite politicians in Iraq promised not to allow the latest attacks on their mosques to escalate into a civil war.

Radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who led two bloody revolts against U.S. forces, called on his followers to avoid blaming any religious group.

“I think they are a series of attacks against the Iraqi people in general and are not targeting a specific religious group,” he told Al Jazeera.

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