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Iraqi Leader, Rebel Chief Vie for Support of Sunnis

Premier-designate Maliki's televised appeals coincide with the release of a video featuring insurgent Zarqawi.

April 26, 2006|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Iraq's new political leader and the insurgent chief challenging his rule took to the airwaves Tuesday, offering dueling visions for the country's future and struggling to win the loyalty of the Sunni Arab minority.

Jawad Maliki, in his first extensive television interviews since being designated prime minister last week, said the new government would not be able to confront terrorism without the help of the country's Sunnis, who have spearheaded a three-year guerrilla war against the government and U.S. troops.

But his appeals may have been overshadowed by the unexpected appearance on a videotape posted to the Internet of an apparently healthy and confident Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born insurgent leader, thought by many officials to have been badly wounded last year.

"Any government that will be established in Iraq today, whoever is in it, whether they are the rejecters [Shiite Muslims] or the secular Zionist Kurds or the agents who are Sunnis in name, it will be a puppet government that will owe its allegiance to the [Western] crusaders," he said in the videotape. He likened the new government to "a poisonous dagger in the heart of the Islamic nation."

Zarqawi appealed to Sunnis to fight the agenda of Americans and the country's Shiite majority, whom he called rejecters for their refusal to recognize the Sunni sect's first caliphs. He criticized fellow Sunnis in the parliament, including recently elected speaker Mahmoud Mashadani, for claiming to have influence over the insurgency.

The release of the tape may also be part of a battle for supremacy within the insurgency. U.S. and Iraqi officials have been trying to break off Zarqawi's followers, most of them foreigners in Iraq, from those elements in the insurgency composed of Iraqi nationals. Zarqawi referred to himself as the prince of Al Qaeda in Iraq, his branch of the terrorist group, as well as a member of the mujahedin council.

Maliki, a Shiite politician, also appealed to the Sunnis.

"Our Sunni brothers by their participation in a broad alliance have begun to carry responsibilities in the political process," the prime minister-designate said of Sunnis in the government. "That will dry up the sources" of terrorism.

He cast himself as a democrat who would bow to the will of the electorate and respect people's diverse beliefs.

"Our country has many sects, religions and political trends," he said. "If the Iraqi people have chosen a system, whether it was Islamic or not, I will respect the people's will."

He said that fighting terrorism would be the key item on his agenda and that he would do so by creating a "white front" of Sunnis, Shiites, other Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens and other religious and ethnic minorities.

Maliki said he would appoint government ministers who were nonsectarian, promising to bring competent people to government.

Early today, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld arrived in Baghdad unannounced. He was expected to meet with members of the new government.

In Tuesday's tape, Zarqawi also addressed Iraq's political situation directly, deriding the parliament elected last December as a "play." He also heaped venom on President Bush, condemning "the rotten democracy that you brought to Mesopotamia after you promised people hope and stability. All of that went away with the wind."

In the 34-minute tape, Zarqawi, wearing a black uniform and holding an assault rifle, called on Iraqis to take up arms against Iraq's U.S.-backed government and warned Iraqis not to join the country's nascent security forces. The video showed scenes of the insurgent leader sitting in a circle with masked comrades, strolling through the desert and firing off machine-gun rounds.

The tape, embellished with computer graphics, Koranic verses and a clip of Osama bin Laden praising the insurgents, also showed off a pair of 6-foot rockets called the Qaeda I and the Quds I, which Zarqawi has claimed to have created to "bomb enemy sites."

Violence in Iraq continued Tuesday. A bomb inside a nylon bag left on a small bus killed two people and injured three in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood. Gunmen shot to death a judge in western Baghdad. Authorities discovered at least two bodies, allegedly victims of sectarian death squads.

Four Iraqis, including an 8-year-old girl, were killed in two drive-by shootings in Baqubah, northeast of the capital. In Kirkuk, shootings and bombings left at least two dead and three injured.

Government workers in Ramadi have gone on strike to protest the alleged killings of five Iraqis by U.S. forces, said Abdul-Sattar Arrawi, a professor at the local university. "The strike will continue until U.S. forces leave the city and confess to their crime," said Mohammed Ahmed Dulaimi, a member of the City Council.


Times special correspondents in Baqubah, Kirkuk and Ramadi contributed to this report.

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