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A new Sunni strategy in Iraq

After failing to defeat Iraq's charter, Sunni Arab parties merge - with an anti-US agenda.

By Jill CarrollCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 27, 2005


The engine that drives Iraq's insurgency, this country's politically marginalized Sunni Arab minority, is getting ready for a fight - but this time it's at the ballot box.

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Energized by the adoption of a new constitution, which passed over Sunni objections, key Sunni political parties said this week that they are forming a coalition to ensure they have a voice in Iraq's new parliament, to be elected in December.

This vigorous new effort to participate is a complete reversal from the Sunni position last year that voters should boycott polls to select the transitional national assembly. But if the coalition has decided to join in a process it once rejected, it is also beginning to articulate a Sunni political agenda that is Islamist, vehemently anti-American, opposed to foreign troops, and discreetly pro-insurgency.

Many of the old Sunni leaders are gone, entangled in the insurgency, or in jail. These new leaders are hoping that they can begin to reverse a political posture that was hobbled in part by the January boycott.

"We will insist on participating in the next election by the help of almighty God," says Adnan Dulaimi, head of a group called Ahl Iraq, who has a reputation for religious devotion and toughness that elicits respect in some and fear in others.

The political platform of this evolving Sunni coalition, named the Iraqi Accord, still lacks focus beyond ensuring Sunnis aren't persecuted by a Shiite government. Nonetheless, the groups in the coalition so far are drawing up a list of candidates and have begun calling for Sunnis to vote in December elections.

Still, the coalition is engaging in a political high-wire act. They have to rally Sunnis to vote - but gain their support without appearing to bow to pressure from the Shiite-led Iraqi government or the US that has encouraged Sunni participation.

"Any Sunni participation is better than boycotting, to say nothing of intimidating people" away from participating, says Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert at the US Institute of Peace. But "this process seems to be increasingly based on ethnic and sectarian identity. One of the things we should be encouraging is parties of interest, parties that can work across ethnic and sectarian lines."

Many average Sunnis think the government and US want to cede only token power while using Sunni participation to lend some legitimacy to the political process.

It may help if the Muslim Scholars Association gives tacit support to the effort. The association, a group of influential Sunni clerics with close ties to the insurgency, supported the boycott of last January's election. Even if its clerics passively accept the coalition's existence, that would be a persuasive endorsement.

"The Muslim Scholars Association will not participate in the coalition but they might bless it," says Naseer al-Ani, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which, like many of the Sunni groups, is in need of a coalition to amplify its political influence.