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Iraqi Sunnis put faith in Jordanian leader to represent them

AMMAN, Jordan—Top Sunni Muslim politicians in Iraq asked Jordan's King Abdullah II to represent their interests in his meeting Wednesday with President Bush, saying that in Iraq's increasingly sectarian environment, the king is more likely to voice their grievances than Iraq's Shiite Muslim prime minister.

That this responsibility fell to Abdullah highlights the weakened position of Iraq's Sunnis and the anxiety with which many Sunnis in the Middle East view Iraq's future.

It also underscores the distrust between Iraq's Shiite-led government and the country's minority Sunnis, whose community has been the victim of massive retaliatory attacks by Shiite militias—particularly the Mahdi Army of militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr—that have killed thousands in recent weeks.

"We want the king to tell Mr. Bush that there should be a balance of force in Iraq and that everyone should stop the marginalization of the Sunnis," said Alaa Makki, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni bloc. "We want Mr. Bush to have a full picture of what is happening and not only hear one side."

Until recently, Sunnis had been dismissive of Bush's visit to Amman, where he met with King Abdullah on Wednesday night and was expected to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday morning. But the Thanksgiving Day bombing in the impoverished Shiite Baghdad district of Sadr City, which killed more than 200, exposed how frail their communities were against Shiite militias, which retaliated for the attack.

Sunni residents of Baghdad found themselves with few resources to defend their neighborhoods, especially in areas in which a U.S.-led campaign to cut violence in Baghdad had swept up all but a few personal weapons. Many Sunnis said they were forced to rely on help from gunmen from the group al-Qaida in Iraq to defend their homes.

"There is an increasing feeling that the United States will change its policy in Iraq, and this time we want to be sure that he will listen to all the factions of the Iraqi people," said Dhafir al-Ani, another member of the Iraqi Islamic Party.

It wasn't clear early Thursday how vigorously the king had pressed the Sunni case. A 25-sentence statement from the king's press office about his meeting with Bush devoted just one to Iraq: "King Abdullah confirmed to the president that Jordan fully supports national reconciliation in Iraq."

Much of the statement dealt with the king's push for renewed efforts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. "King Abdullah told the American president that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was the core conflict in the region," said the statement, which devoted nine sentences to the Arab-Israeli issue.

The statement said Abdullah had told Bush that resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would make settling other problems in the area easier and had urged the president to "work on moving the peace process forward."

While the statement offered little information about what Abdullah might have said to Bush about Sunni concerns, there's little doubt that the king has been working hard on the Iraq problem.

He met earlier Wednesday with al-Maliki and, separately, with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of Iraq's most powerful political parties.

In recent days Abdullah also met with the top Iraqi Sunni leaders, including the head of the militant Association of Muslim Scholars, Harith al-Dhari, who Iraqi officials said earlier this month might be arrested for fomenting terrorism.

On Tuesday, the king met with Tariq al-Hashimi, the head of the Iraqi Islamic Party.

"We are very concerned for the future of all Iraqis," Abdullah said in an interview Sunday on ABC, adding that "something dramatic" had to come out of this week's meetings.

The king's concerns also reflect the fears of other Arab countries—most of which are ruled by Sunnis—that a Shiite theocracy in Iraq would embolden Shiites in the region, potentially shifting secular Sunni nations toward Iranian-backed theocracies.

Many here say they feel that the United States, by supporting the Maliki government, is condoning that change.

For his part, the king has said he wants to help all of Iraq, regardless of sect, pointing out that as a member of the Hashemite family, he—like the Shiite religious leadership—is a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad.

But his countrymen, who are mostly Sunni, feel that he must speak on behalf of the Sunnis in Iraq.

The Sunni Arab countries "should not be afraid or ashamed to help the Iraqi Sunnis. They should be like Iran," which heavily backs Iraq's Shiites, said Ahmed Ibrahim Namroqa, 61, a retired pilot whose neighborhood in Amman is filled with middle-class Iraqi refugees. "The Sunnis are like orphans in Iraq."

Much is at stake for Jordan, particularly if violence worsens in Iraq. Already, Iraqi refugees make up 10 percent of Jordan's population, according to government statistics, straining the country's frail infrastructure. The number of refugees probably would increase if the war grew.

The king also has expressed concerns that if Iraq becomes a Shiite Islamic theocracy, it would embolden Shiite groups, potentially surrounding his nation with Shiite theocracies.

"The concern is not for Jordan. It is for the vacuum a Sunni exodus from Iraq would create in the region," said Majid Abu Awad, 44, an auditor from Amman. "It is in the best interest of Jordan to have a unified and stable Iraq."

The king has been in the position of peace broker numerous times before, but how much influence he might have this time is unclear. Iraqi Sunnis have never embraced the Jordanian leadership; indeed, they feel that Jordan helped the United States in the 2003 battle for Iraq.

And Abdullah is ultimately responsible for Jordan, not Iraq, analysts noted.

In his ABC interview Sunday, he ranked Iraq third among the Middle East conflicts that concern him, with the No. 2 spot going to Lebanon and the No. 1 position to the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

But many average Jordanians say they want the king to actively support Iraq's Sunnis in the face of a hostile Shiite government.

"I feel for them. They were mistreated by the Shiites and the Americans," said Namroqa, the retired pilot. "They should have an opportunity to defend themselves."


(McClatchy special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this report from Baghdad.)


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.