BAGHDAD — Officials in Iraq's mostly Sunni Muslim Anbar province are refusing to raise Iraq's new national flag, which the parliament approved earlier this week.
"The new flag is done for a foreign agenda and we won't raise it," said Ali Hatem al Suleiman, a leading member of the U.S.-backed Anbar Awakening Council, "If they want to force us to raise it, we will leave the yard for them to fight al Qaida."
U.S. officials credit the Anbar Awakening Council, part of the American strategy of recruiting local Sunnis to battle Islamic militants, with driving al Qaida in Iraq, which once largely controlled the province, out of Anbar.
The dispute over the flag is a more accurate symbol of Iraq today than the flag itself is. "On nothing we are completely united," said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish lawmaker.
Although parliament speaker Mahmoud al Mashhadani said the new flag would be raised immediately across Iraq after the parliament approved it Tuesday, it's nowhere to be seen. In fact, when the parliament met Wednesday, the old flag was still behind the speaker and his two deputies.
A slim minority of parliamentarians approved the new flag, which doesn't have Saddam Hussein's handwriting or the three stars that represented his Sunni-dominated Baath Party.
It was rushed through parliament before a pan-Arab parliament meeting that's planned for March in Irbil, in the Kurdish north, because the Kurdish Regional Government prohibits flying Iraq's Saddam-era flag. The Kurds consider that flag a symbol of Saddam's oppression.
Only 165 of the Iraqi parliament's 275 lawmakers were present Tuesday, and only 110 voted for the new red, white and black flag with "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great") in Kufic script, the ancient calligraphy developed in Mesopotamia.
While the Anbar Awakening Council vowed never to raise the new flag, U.S.-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki praised the council for standing against al Qaida in Iraq. In a speech in Karbala, Maliki also pledged a new fight against Sunni militants in Ninevah province, where at least 40 people were killed in a bombing this week and a suicide bomber killed the police chief.
Suleiman of the Anbar Awakening Council, however, said he was angry that the parliament and government toiled away on a new flag rather than dealing with the country's lack of services.
Many Iraqis, including some lawmakers who rejected the flag, were angered at what they considered a change to the flag in order to please the Kurdish north and its president, Massoud Barzani.
"We don't want to handle the problem of the Kurdistan region by causing problems with other regions that might refuse the new flag," said Nassar al Rubaie, the head of radical Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al Sadr's bloc in parliament, who voted against the new flag.
The new flag is temporary. According to Iraq's Constitution, the parliament must pass a new law that issues a permanent flag and a national anthem.
The Iraqi flag has long been a point of contention. When a flag with light blue stripes and a blue crescent moon in the middle was proposed in 2004, many Iraqis thought that it resembled the Israeli flag and people took to the streets in protest.
Othman, the Kurdish lawmaker, said he expected people to reject the latest change in the flag but hoped that when a new, permanent flag was chosen, people would salute it.
"Just as the Kurds were not raising the flag all these years, others also will not raise the new flag," he said. "I hope with time it will ease away, and I think everyone should look forward to the permanent flag."
(Kadhim is a McClatchy special correspondent.)