Exclusive: Sunni leaders open to joining Iraq government if conditions met

BAGHDAD Fri Aug 15, 2014 10:47am EDT

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Tribal leaders and clerics from Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland who rebelled against outgoing premier Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government are willing to join the new administration if certain conditions are met, a spokesman said on Friday.

One of Iraq's most powerful Sunni tribal leaders said he was ready to work with the new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, provided he protected the rights of the minority sect, which was marginalized by Maliki.

In a television appearance, Ali Hatem Suleiman, head of the Dulaimi tribe that dominates the Sunni heartland Anbar province, said a decision on whether or not to fight the Sunni Islamic State insurgents who threaten to break up Iraq would come later.

Abadi faces the daunting task of pacifying Anbar, where Sunni frustrations with Maliki's sectarian policies have goaded some to join the radical Islamic State insurrection.

Taha Mohammed Al-Hamdoon, the spokesman for tribal and clerical leaders, said Sunni representatives in Anbar and other provinces had drawn up a list of demands to be delivered to the moderate Shi'ite Abadi through Sunni politicians.

He called for government and Shi'ite militia forces to suspend hostilities to allow space for talks.

"It is not possible for any negotiations to be held under barrel bombs and indiscriminate bombing," Hamdoon said in a telephone interview with Reuters. "Let the bombing stop and withdraw and curtail the (Shi'ite) militias until there is a solution for the wise men in these areas."

After a U.S. occupation lasting nearly a decade, ending in 2011 with a price tag of more than $2 trillion, Iraq is nowhere near the stability promised when Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

Maliki was widely resented as a divisive and authoritarian figure who drew comparisons with the former Iraqi dictator.

Winning over Sunnis, who dominated under Saddam and were sidelined by Maliki, will be vital to any efforts to contain a sectarian civil war marked by almost daily kidnappings, execution-style killings and bombings.

Hamdoon was earlier the spokesman for protesters whose demands ranged from amending laws they say are used unfairly to persecute Sunnis to carving out their own region akin to Iraq's ethnic Kurds, who run their own semi-autonomous administration in the north of the country.

The list of demands in a document seen by Reuters include an end to bombings of Sunni areas, the safe return of displaced people, compensation and am amnesty for detainees and the withdrawal of Shi'ite militias from cities.

It is not clear whether Hamdoon and his supporters will be able to persuade other Sunnis to follow suit if they back Abadi's government.

Islamic State militants have a tight grip on major cities in the region like Ramadi and Falluja, where U.S. troops faced their fiercest combat since the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s.

And not all factions in a complex network of tribes may be open to the idea of compromise.

Hamdoon said Sunnis in other provinces such as Salahuddin and Ninevah want to administer their own areas and form their own security forces supervised by the local government.

(Reporting by Raheem Salman; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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