- The Washington Times - Monday, November 23, 2009

BAGHDAD | A stepped-up campaign by the Iraqi prime minister against Saddam Hussein loyalists is alienating Sunni Muslims and stoking tensions between them and the majority Shi’ites ahead of key national elections.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-dominated government put three men on state television Sunday to confess their purported role in planning suicide attacks in Baghdad last month. The three, all in detention and dressed in orange prison jumpsuits, said the bombings were ordered by Saddam’s Ba’ath Party.

Mr. al-Maliki’s intensified rhetoric worsens one of Iraq’s most dangerous sectarian fault lines - one which the United States has long struggled to calm.

Reconciliation between Sunnis and Shi’ites has been an elusive goal, seen as critical for Iraqi’s stability - and it takes on added urgency with American forces now scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. Many fear that without U.S. troops, sectarian and ethnic rifts could reignite into violence.

Mr. al-Maliki and his fellow Shi’ite politicians have repeatedly warned in recent weeks against what they contend is a plot by members of the Ba’ath Party to return to power, with what some suggest is the help of Sunni-ruled Arab nations.

He has vowed to do everything in his power to stop Ba’ath Party loyalists from running in the upcoming parliamentary election. He has also insisted that Ba’athists, a term widely taken to mean Sunni Arabs, worked with al Qaeda to carry out massive suicide bombings targeting government buildings in Baghdad that killed at least 255 people in August and October.

The Ba’ath Party and Saddam’s regime were dominated by Sunnis, who have lost their political prominence to the majority Shi’ites since Saddam’s 2003 fall. Election law bars Iraqis who held senior Ba’ath Party positions or were involved in past crimes from running for office. But Sunnis fear the ban could be expanded to others.

The talk against Ba’athists raises alarm bells among Sunnis, who fear it hints at a broader move to force their candidates out of the election. The election for a new, 223-seat parliament is slated for January, but may be delayed by a dispute over the country’s election law and a Kurdish threat to boycott the vote.

“I think the law and the judiciary, not political agendas, should decide the issue of the Ba’athists,” said Sunni lawmaker Hashem al-Taie. “If there is no transparency and fairness, the criterion will be used selectively against candidates.”

But such rifts also make useful political tools in an election campaign, and Mr. al-Maliki may be pressing on Ba’athists in an attempt to shore up his Shi’ite base.

Mr. al-Maliki has become more vulnerable since he was dumped by some of his Shi’ite allies, who formed a separate coalition to run in the election. He has failed to persuade significant Sunni groups to join his “State of Law” alliance, losing much of his claim to cross-sectarian leadership.

The recent bombings also hurt his credentials as the leader who oversaw a vast improvement in security over the past two years. Mr. al-Maliki is also trying to counter charges by his Shi’ite rivals that his 3-year-old administration allowed hard-core Saddam loyalists to “infiltrate” security services, the armed forces and the civil service, said Dhafer al-Ani, a prominent Sunni Arab lawmaker.

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