BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq’s Shiite-led government, beset by sectarian violence, fuel shortages and rising prices, received a significant boost Saturday when kidnappers released a Sunni Arab lawmaker whose abduction nearly two months ago unleashed a political crisis.
Taiseer Mashhadani, a mother of two, was freed unharmed after extensive pleas from the U.S.-backed administration of Nouri al-Maliki, who heads the ruling Shiite coalition.
“They were very polite and treated me well,” Mashhadani, wearing a white headdress and black cloak, told reporters after her release.
An elated Prime Minister al-Maliki, who received Mashhadani at his office, called her release a “gift” as his government embarked on an ambitious campaign to reconcile Iraq’s warring sects and factions.
“This is an important step and achievement for the reconciliation process,” said the prime minister, who added that no ransom was paid for the lawmaker’s release. “This is a good start.”
The case, with its clear sectarian overtones, had frustrated the Shiite leadership and seemed to mock al-Maliki’s assertions that he was committed to reaching out to minority Sunni Arabs, who dominated until the U.S.-engineered overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Disaffected Sunnis have formed the backbone of the ongoing insurgency that has battled U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies.
Mashhadani is a part of the Sunni Arab parliamentary minority whose participation is vital if Iraq is to have a government of “national unity,” as the prime minister has vowed to implement. She represents the Iraqi Islamic Party, a major Sunni political grouping in the beleaguered, 3-month-old government.
U.S. officials are hopeful that a truly representative system eventually will help quell Iraq’s numbing violence, which skyrocketed in July with more than 100 murders reported each day.
Shiite and Sunni tribal chiefs gathered in Baghdad inked a so-called “pact of honor” Saturday stipulating that they will work together to avert the nation’s descent into an all-out civil war.
The sheiks vowed to work for peace. But Sunni chieftains warned against splitting Iraq into autonomous regions – an anathema for most Sunnis but an eagerly anticipated outcome for many Shiites and Kurds who support al-Maliki’s ruling coalition. The financial stakes are high: Both the Kurdish north and Shiite south have vast oil reserves, while the Sunni regions of central, western and northern Iraq boast no such natural wealth.
Even as the sheiks and the prime minister spoke of harmony, a leading Shiite cleric, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, reiterated calls Saturday for autonomy for the oil-rich, mostly Shiite south. Hakim lauded “federalism” – a code word for autonomy – as “a guarantee to our sons and grandsons that oppression will not be revived.”