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Sunnis stepping out of political sidelines in Iraq

May 23, 2005

BAGHDAD: More than 1,000 Sunni Arab clerics, political leaders and tribal heads ended their two-year boycott of politics in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq on Saturday, uniting in a Sunni bloc that they said would help draft the country’s new constitution and compete in elections.

Formation of the group comes during escalating violence between Sunni and Shia communities of the country that has raised the threat of sectarian war. The bloc represents moderate and hardline members of the Association of Muslim Scholars, the Iraqi Islamic Party and other main groups of the disgruntled Sunni minority toppled from dominance when US-led troops routed military dictator Saddam Hussein in April 2003.

Sunnis have remained on the sidelines of the Iraqi government since then. Most Sunnis boycotted national elections in January that put the long-suppressed Shia majority in charge. Meanwhile, a Sunni-led insurgency appears to have become increasingly unpopular among ordinary Iraqis as the death toll from bombings and other attacks climbs. “The country needs Sunnis to join politics,” Adnand Dulaimi, a government-appointed overseer of Sunni religious sites and a leader of the drive to draw Sunnis into the rebuilding of Iraq, declared at the conference on Saturday where the bloc was assembled. “The Sunnis are now ready to participate.”

“The last elections brought a major turnaround in the political representation of Sunnis,” Dulaimi said. “We think it’s time to take steps to save Iraq’s identity, and its unity and independence ... Iraq is for all, and Iraq is not sectarian.” “I call on Sunnis to unite their voices and get ready to take part in the next election,” said Ahmed Abdul Ghafur Samarrai, a moderate in the Association of Muslim Scholars, the most vocal Sunni opposition group. US officials and leaders of the new Iraqi government have said that including Sunnis in the political process is essential to ending the insurgency.

Bombings, shootings and other violence have killed more than 400 people since Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shia, began announcing members of his Cabinet in late April. Sunnis attending the conference, held at a nondescript hall, condemned the bloodshed — particularly the surge of tit-for-tat shootings this month targeting Shia and Sunni clerics and their aides. In a statement adopted at the meeting, the Sunni leaders called for “liberating” Iraq from US-led forces “by all legal means.” The statement condemned “all terrorist acts that target civilians, no matter the reason,” but said, “resisting the occupier is a legitimate right.”

Because of the boycott of the January elections, only 17 Sunnis have seats in the 275-seat national assembly. “That is the problem that Sunnis face now,” said Tariq Hashimi, secretary-general of the Iraqi Islamic Party. “We are not represented in the assembly. How can we participate in writing a constitution?” The new government is charged with writing a constitution by Aug. 15. A national vote on the constitution would follow, leading to the election of a new, full-term government. Only one of the 55 members of the committee charged with drafting the constitution is Sunni. Samarrai said assembly authorities had agreed to add more Sunnis to the process and had asked Sunni leaders to recommend 10 or more nominees. Broad Sunni participation in the next elections will be conditional on a constitution that guarantees the rights of all Iraqis, Samarrai and other Sunni officials said. If the constitution is satisfactory, “We’ll not miss the chance again. We’ll not make the same mistake” of sitting out elections, Samarrai said. Emotions at the conference peaked when speakers called for the resignation of Iraq’s interior minister, Bayan Jabr, a Shia, as head of the police forces.

In a news conference later, Jabr rejected the call for his resignation. “No one has the right to fire, or force to resign, except the National Assembly,” he said. “Those who have no voice should not demand to be listened to.” A US official in Baghdad said Jabr’s appointment and the recent killings of clerics may have prodded Sunnis to participate in the political process.

Conference organizers said former Iraqi military officers also attended. Saddam-era military officers are believed to be among the leaders of homegrown resistance to the US military presence and to the Iraqi government it supports. In addition to Sunnis, foreign fighters including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian, have played a lethal role in the insurgency. A statement attributed to al-Zarqawi that was released on the Internet last week defended killing innocent Muslims in the interest of harming Americans and Shias. —Dawn/LAT-WP News Service