Monday, October 3, 2005

From combined dispatches

AMMAN, Jordan — Iraq’s interior minister lashed out yesterday at a Saudi minister who voiced worries about growing Iranian influence and Shi’ite power, saying Iraq would not be lectured by “some Bedouin riding a camel.”

Ethnic tensions within Iraq’s governing coalition also heightened, with the nation’s Kurdish president called on the Shi’ite prime minister to step down.

Prince Saud al-Faisal, foreign minister of Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, had expressed concern about growing Shi’ite influence in Iraq during a visit to Washington last month.

Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a member of the Shi’ite Islamist Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, fired back during a press conference in Amman yesterday, saying, “We will not allow anyone to interfere in our internal issues, regardless of their political status. …

“This Iraq is the cradle of civilization that taught humanity reading and writing, and some Bedouin riding a camel wants to teach us. This talk is totally rejected,” he said.

He also took a swipe at the Saudi monarchy.

“There are regimes that are dictatorships. They have one God. He is the king, he is God of heaven and earth, and he rules as he likes,” Mr. Jabr said.

“A whole country is named after a family. If we open these topics without inhibitions, it is neither to our benefit, nor to theirs.”

The exchange between the two ministers reflects wider tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites that divide the Arab world and are behind many of the problems in Iraq, including a stubborn insurgency and the failure of the country to unite in support of a new constitution.

More surprising is the flare-up between Shi’ites, who hold a majority of seats in the Iraqi parliament, and Kurds, who have so far been willing partners in seeking to establish a stable democratic government.

A spokesman for President Jalal Talabani accused the Shi’ite-led United Iraqi Alliance of monopolizing power in the government and refusing to move ahead on the resettlement of Kurds in the northern city of Kirkuk.

“The time has come for the United Iraqi Alliance and the Kurdistan coalition to study Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s stepping aside from his post,” said Azad Jundiyani of Mr. Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. “This is for the benefit of the political process.”

Mr. Jundiyani would not say whether the Kurds would withdraw from the government if the Shi’ite alliance does not back them in removing Mr. al-Jaafari. Mr. Talabani has made indirect threats to withdraw from the coalition if Kurdish demands are not met.

Jawad al-Maliki, a Shi’ite legislator and a leader in Mr. al-Jaafari’s Dawa party, denounced the president’s remarks.

“They should have asked us for that in a legal way, and then we will have discussions,” he said. “It is not beneficial for Iraq, especially during this period of time because the country is heading to a referendum and elections.”

Close ties between Mr. al-Jaafari’s administration and Iran — where the prime minister and other officials lived in exile during the rule of since-ousted dictator Saddam Hussein — are causing unease for a number of Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbors.

But Mr. Jabr said in Amman that those countries should support the newly empowered Shi’ites rather than pushing them into the arms of Iran.

“If they want to push 17 million Shi’ite Arabs in Iraq and tell them ‘You are Persian’ — you are pushing matters along a dangerous path,” Mr. Jabr said. He said charges that many Iranians were infiltrating into Iraq were baseless.

The Saudi foreign minister also said in Washington that the new Iraqi constitution, being put to a referendum this month, could split the country apart and disenfranchise the Sunnis.

Mr. Jabr hit back at Saudi Arabia’s treatment of its own Shi’ites. They are believed to make up 10 percent of its native population, and complain of being marginalized by a government allied to Wahhabi Sunni scholars who consider Shi’ism a heresy.

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