BAGHDAD – An Iraqi court on Thursday sentenced the Sunni leader of a government-allied paramilitary group to death for murder and kidnapping in a case that highlighted tensions over the treatment of former insurgents who turned against Al Qaeda.
The ruling against Adel al-Mashhadani coincided with political uncertainty in Iraq, as lawmakers planned to vote Saturday on how to break a deadlock over an election law after a vice president vetoed it. The crisis could delay a national vote planned for January and affect the timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal.
The sentence and the veto dispute, though not directly linked, reflect the challenges of reconciliation in a nation where ethnic and sectarian factions remain suspicious of each other after years of bloodshed.
Al-Mashhadani's arrest in March set off a two-day battle in Baghdad pitting U.S. and forces of Iraq's Shiite-led government against al-Mashhadani's group, which comprised Sunni Arabs who abandoned the insurgency and joined the Americans in the fight against Al Qaeda. At least four people died.
Justice Ministry spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar said al-Mashhadani, who operated in the capital's hardscrabble Fadhil neighborhood, can appeal the sentence. Some of his crimes are believed to have occurred after he left the insurgency, and local residents said his followers routinely extorted money.
But the harsh punishment angered one Sunni lawmaker.
"Regrettably, the Iraqi law is being used by the government as a tool to settle old scores with the people who helped to stabilize the country," said legislator Mustafa al-Hiti. "The government should be aware that such actions will not help enhance security and the political process ahead of the coming elections."
The Sunni Arab minority dominated Iraq until a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, and boycotted elections in January 2005 ahead of the run-up to the most vicious sectarian violence of the war.
Awakening Council groups such as the one run by al-Mashhadani were instrumental in reducing the potency of Al Qaeda in Iraq, but U.S.-backed efforts to incorporate the groups into government programs have had mixed success.
Some Sunni militia leaders had suspected the government was more interested in revenge than reconciliation, and there were tough questions about whether former insurgents should face charges or be exonerated if they fought against Al Qaeda.
An amnesty law adopted last year allows officials to clear the slate for some past offenses, but does not cover allegations such as terrorism, kidnapping and rape.
Iraq's fractious parliament, meanwhile, was looking at two options — sending the same election law back to the three-member presidency council, where it is likely to be vetoed again — or amending the law to address the concerns of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi.
Under the constitution, parliament can override a second veto with a three-fifths majority, thereby passing a law seen as vital to Iraq's ability to move toward full sovereignty and political stability after years of bloodshed.
Al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab, wants the law to allocate more seats to Iraqis living abroad, many of whom are Sunnis who fled the war.
Speaker Ayad al-Samarie said Thursday that political blocs agreed to vote after failing to craft an immediate solution to the vice president's demand. Al-Hashemi's veto was welcomed by supporters as a legal right and by opponents as an attack on Iraq's fledgling democracy.
"Basically, we did not find any proposal that enjoys agreement," al-Samarie said. "So it was decided to resort to voting on the veto of the presidency."
The 275-seat parliament could muster the numbers necessary to override a second veto if most Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers choose to do so, but that outcome would fail to ease the sense of alienation of many Sunni Arabs.
Earlier this week, Kurdish leaders threatened to boycott the 2010 election unless the three northern provinces they control are given more seats in the next parliament, which will have 323 seats. They were mostly quiet Thursday, possibly assessing the veto dispute and how they can promote their own agenda.
A return to the intense violence of 2006 and 2007 is unlikely, and the U.S. military believes it can stick to its timetable of withdrawing all U.S. combat troops by the end of August 2010, and the rest of its personnel by the end of 2011.
Still, U.S. military officials have said they will begin to draw down combat forces about 60 days after the election, and the possibility of a vote delay could compel commanders to reassess the plan just as Washington is pondering a buildup of forces in Afghanistan.
Iraq's electoral commission said it has suspended preparations for the vote, which the constitution says should be held by the end of January. With time running out, legislators who spent weeks haggling over the election law — only to see it vetoed — boiled with frustration.
"The atmosphere prevailing in today's meetings was one where disputes went back to the way they were when we first discussed the draft law," said Abbas al-Bayati, a Shiite lawmaker.