BAGHDAD (Reuters) â€” Iraqi Vice President Tariq Hashemi said his fellow Sunni Arabs account for the majority of the thousands of Iraqis killed last year and are the victims of ethnic “cleansing” by gunmen driving them from Baghdad.
Asked in an interview about figures indicating around 23,000 civilians and police may have been killed in violence last year, Hashemi said he could not confirm the numbers: “But I am not surprised at this figure. And I could say easily that the majority of them are Sunni,” he told Reuters late Friday.
The bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra last February, blamed on Al Qaeda, triggered a wave of sectarian violence that Hashemi said had hit Sunni Arabs disproportionately.
“Since the 22nd of February, there is a continuous, ongoing cleansing in Baghdad to kick out all Sunnis,” said Hashemi, who lost two brothers and a sister in gun attacks last year.
Sectarian attacks, bombings and mortars are killing hundreds of people every week in Baghdad, the epicentre of violence in Iraq. Tens of thousands of both Shiites and Sunni Arabs have fled their homes amid threats and violence on both sides. Government officials have stopped giving official numbers of violent deaths, and are generally careful about addressing the sensitive subject of precisely who is killing whom.
Earlier this week, however, Shiite leader Abdul-Aziz Hakim said Shiites were suffering “sectarian genocide”.
US President George W. Bush met both Hashemi and Hakim, leader of the powerful Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, at the end of last year in Washington amid efforts to encourage moderates in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite Islamist who leads a unity government that also includes ethnic Kurds and Sunni Arabs, has announced a new security plan for Baghdad, promising to tackle all illegal armed groups, regardless of sect.
Washington has identified the Mehdi Army, loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, as the greatest threat to security in Iraq. However Maliki depends on Sadr’s political movement for crucial support in parliament.
“This is the problem,” said Hashemi, seen as a moderate among the Sunni Arab minority dominant under Saddam Hussein.
“Because the Sadrists are a partner in the government, a partner in the parliament, a partner even in the security council.
“They also have this militia and they are not hiding that this militia belongs to them. That’s part of the Sadrist organisation. This unique phenomenon might be the stumbling block which hindered Maliki from taking hard decisions, and tackling the militias as he tackled the terrorists.” “The time comes now to segregate these things,” Hashemi said. “Whoever might be in the political process should be committed to peaceful practices, otherwise he should be treated like any other unlawful gang.” Hashemi, who has long called for a defined timetable for a US withdrawal, welcomed Bush’s announcement of 21,500 extra US troops, saying there was an “acute shortage” of manpower.
The strongest critics of the 2003 invasion, many Sunni Arabs have since grown concerned that a US departure may leave them vulnerable. Hashemi said they should stay as long as they are needed to “purge the security forces of militiasâ€.
“If we need six months the coalition forces should stay six months. If we require one year they should stay for one year.
“Unfortunately for some time to come we will rely primarily on the coalition forces until we get a patriotic, a professional armed forces.”