Next in Iraq: Sunni civil war?

Widespread reports (e.g. in Turkish Press Nov. 18) indicate an arrest warrant has been issued by Iraq’s Interior Ministry for Sheikh Harith al-Dhari, the leading Sunni religious figure in the country and head of the Muslim Scholars Association. This Nov. 19 report from the New York Times denies the warrant has been issued, but notes a growing split within the Sunni community:

Iraqi Sunni Sheiks Assail Cleric for Qaeda Ties

BAGHDAD — Sunni Arab sheiks from volatile Anbar Province denounced a powerful Sunni cleric on Saturday, calling him “a thug” for supporting the terrorist group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and urging the Iraqi government to issue an arrest warrant against him.

The sheiks, the founders of a group called the Anbar Salvation Council that they formed in September to resist foreign militants in Iraq, were reacting to statements that the cleric, Harith al-Dhari, had made in interviews last week in which he criticized Sunni tribal leaders who had recently decided to take a stand against Al Qaeda.

Anbar, a vast western desert province centered around the provincial capital of Ramadi, is the heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency, with various militant groups working to topple the Shiite-led government and end the American presence in Iraq. But as the fundamentalist members of Al Qaeda have tried imposing Taliban-like rule on areas of Anbar, some Iraqi tribes have turned against the group, leading to a further fracturing of what at least initially seemed to be a united resistance to the American invasion.

Mr. Dhari leads the Muslim Scholars Association, a conservative group of clerics that is outspoken in its criticism of the American occupation and the Iraqi government. In the interviews last week, he accused the Anbar council of trying to cozy up to the Iraqi government in return for money. “We, on behalf of the Anbar tribes council, say to Harith al-Dhari: If there is a thug, it is you; if there is a killer and a kidnapper, it is you,” said Sheik Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, leader of the Rishawi tribe.

Sheik Rishawi spoke at a news conference he had called at the Mansour Hotel in Baghdad. He strode into the room swathed in the traditional white robes of a sheik and surrounded by three gunmen. Three Shiite sheiks from the south also accompanied him in a show of sectarian unity.

Mr. Dhari’s statements have touched off outrage in the highest ranks of the Iraqi government. President Jalal Talabani said last Tuesday that Mr. Dhari was stirring up sectarian strife and that he was trying to enlist the aid of Sunni-led countries in the region to foment violence here. Mr. Dhari is in Amman, Jordan, and has been traveling widely across the Middle East.

On Thursday, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani announced on TV that he had issued an arrest warrant against Mr. Dhari. The next day, after some Sunni leaders expressed anger at this move, a spokesman for the office of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said that no warrant had been issued and that officials had just been investigating Mr. Dhari. Clerics allied with Mr. Dhari called for Sunni political parties to withdraw from the government.

Sheik Rishawi said Saturday that “Dhari doesn’t represent the people of Anbar, and we ask the Muslim Scholars Association to get rid of him.”

The American military said Saturday that Iraqi security forces and American trainers conducted a morning raid in the Shiite militia stronghold of Sadr City, in eastern Baghdad, to look for people kidnapped earlier in the week. The abductees being sought were presumably among dozens of victims snatched from the headquarters of the Ministry of High Education last week by militiamen dressed in police commando uniforms.

In the south, British and Iraqi forces continued to search for four American security guards and their Austrian colleague who were kidnapped Thursday from a supply convoy by men in Iraqi police uniforms. But Capt. Tane Dunlop, a British military spokesman, said that no extensive raids were being conducted Saturday, a day after British and American forces were involved in gun battles in the area. “The indicators are that it was a for-profit attack,” he said. “The best solution would be if the hostages could be recovered without any shooting.”

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