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National Salvation Front in Iraq?

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Last week, a little noticed but potentially important dialogue occurred on Capitol Hill. A dozen or so members of Congress, led by Rep. Jim McDermott (D.-Wash.) held a video teleconference with five members of the Iraqi parliament. The parliamentarians from Iraq included both Sunnis and Shia, and the members of Congress crossed the sectarian divide, too, involving Democrats and Republicans.

Before getting into the substance of the event, you might wonder why the meeting had to be held via teleconference. Why don't the Democrats just invite the Iraqis to Washington to testify before a congressional committee? Well, they tried, says McDermott, who's been leading the effort in Congress for two years to open a regular dialogue with actual Iraqis. But when the Democrats and the Iraqis tried to clear the visas for the parliamentarians through the State Department, the applications were sent over the Department of Homeland Security, and they disappeared into what McDermott calls a "black hole." That's right - the government of the United States won't clear the way for members of the Iraqi parliament - official representatives of the Iraqi government it supports - to visit the U.S. capital on official business. How did McDermott react? "I was stunned," he says.

"There should be a hearing like this with the House international affairs committee," he says. "It shouldn't be Jim Dermott doing an uplink in the basement of a House office building."

The substance of the event was critically important. All five Iraqi parliamentarians called for an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, along with urgent steps to help end the civil war, restore Iraq's old army, accommodate the dissolved Baath party, and rebuild the shattered economy. And they are not alone: a majority of the Iraqi parliament favors the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, a fact that gets little or no attention from either the media or the U.S. government.

The most important participant in the event from the Iraqi side was Nadim al-Jaberi, a member of parliament and co-founder of the Fadhila party. Until last week, the Fadhila party was part of the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite bloc that is the largest faction in the 270-member assembly. Fadhila is a nationalist party with tremendous grassroots support across southern Iraq, and it holds 15 seats in parliament. Last week, Fadhila pulled out of the UIA, announcing its attention to seek the establishment of a new power bloc in Iraq, one that includes both Sunnis, secular Iraqis, and Shia.

Fadhila is working with several other Iraqi factions, all of whom had participants in the teleconference organized by McDermott, including the National Dialogue Front (11 seats), which was represented by Saleh Mutlaq; the Iraqi Accord Front (44 seats), which represents religious Sunnis; the Iraqi National List, led by Iyad Allawi, the former Iraqi prime minister (25 seats), and others, including independents. Altogether, the coalition with Fadhila would muster close to 100 seats, putting it within striking distance of a new majority coalition that could unseat Prime Minister Maliki.

According to Iraqi sources, the new coalition is attempting to organize what they call a "National Salvation Front," that would include not only the above parties but also Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc, which has 35 seats in parliament. (The Fadhila party is also part of the Sadrist movement in Iraq, but its members are loyal not to Muqtada al-Sadr but to another Iraqi cleric who is also heir to the Sadrist clerical tradition that was led by Muqtada's father and uncle.) In addition, various independents and an important faction of the ruling Islamic Dawa party (Maliki's own party) are considering joining the new coalition.

It's too early to say whether the proposed National Salvation Front can be successful. But what's crucial about its birth is that for the first time an important alliance is being created the includes major forces in both the Sunni and Shiite communities, along with secular Iraqis. What unites them is opposition to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, opposition to the idea of breaking up Iraqi into regions, and opposition to Iranian hegemony in Iraq.

Those who support breaking up Iraq including the two main Kurdish parties and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). And it is SCIRI that is Iran's chief ally in Iraqi politics.

"Putting a timetable on a withdrawal of U.S. troops is a very important step in giving Iraqis the confidence that the occupation will end," said Jaberi, during the teleconference.

McDermott asked Jaberi why Fadhila left the Shiite bloc. "We've been thinking about this decision for at least a year," he said. In the run up to the 2005 election in Iraq, Fadhila initially wanted to run as an independent party, he said, but their plans ran afoul of the Iraqi election commission, which forced them to run as part of the UIA. (At the time, there was enormous pressure from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the clerical boss in Najaf, to create a unified Shiite bloc.)

"The United States established the sectarian basis for ruling Iraq," charged Jaberi, who accused the U.S. overlords in 2003-2005 of forcing Iraqi politics into a sectarian mode. "We never had in Iraq any kind of sectarian fighting in Iraq before the Americans came," he said.

Both McDermott and Jaberi discussed whether Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc will join Fadhila in leaving the UIA and joining the nonsectarian bloc. (Last fall, Sadr's bloc withdrew from the Iraqi government to protest Maliki's November meeting with President Bush.) "We have opened a very wide door in redrawing the Iraqi political map," said Jaberi, mixing metaphors. "Many other people were hesitating in taking the first step, because sectarianism was controlling the political process."

McDermott asked Jaberi if a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq - something that the Democratic party is now virtually unified in seeking - would accelerate the movement in Iraq to end sectarian politics. "Yes," said Jaberi. "A timetable would be very good. This will make the process of reconciliation go even faster."

A representative of Muqtada al-Sadr's party was supposed to participate in the teleconference, but did not - perhaps indicating uncertainty or division within the rather disorganized Sadr bloc.

Another key point was raised by Saleh Mutlaq. "There will be no settlement in Iraq without a direct dialogue with the resistance in Iraq." Mutlaq has long called for including the insurgents in a dialogue to end the civil war and to create a new Iraqi government. "Iraqis," he said, "will not accept the language of occupation."

Mutlaq said that the idea of a National Salvation Front has been under consideration for a long time. "We've been working to establish the NSF for seven months," he said. "And we've been working with all of Iraq's neighbors, along with Arab mediators, including the Six-Plus-Two." The Six-Plus-Two involves the six Arab Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, plus Egypt and Jordan. According to Mutlaq, as many as thirty-two Iraqi political groups are engaged in talks to create the NSF, including blocs within Iraq's parliament and those who are outside the political process now, such as Baathists, nationalists, former army officers, and Islamic scholars' groups.