BAGHDAD AND HUSEYBAH, IRAQ — In a complete turnabout from last January's vote to select an interim assembly, Sunni Arabs are expected to turn out in large numbers Thursday to select Iraq's new parliament.
In some cases, they are being driven to participate by a sense of disenfranchisement and a desire to gain more political sway in a country many see as being dominated by a powerful Shiite and Kurdish alliance.
They are also motivated by a strong anti-US sentiment that runs throughout much of the Sunni community. In fact, some Sunni politicians are even using images of dead insurgents to attract support among those who are sympathetic to Iraq's violent rebellion.
While most agree Iraq's permanent parliament will have greater Sunni representation, it will be an uphill battle for this minority to regain a foothold in the country they once dominated.
Sunni anger grew Tuesday as news spread that Mizhal al-Duleimy, a prominent Sunni politician, was fatally shot while campaigning in the city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad. That comes on top of fresh reports that Sunnis arrested by Shiite forces are being mistreated and tortured in underground prisons. Iraq's interim prime minister, Ibrahim Jafaari, acknowledged that more abused prisoners have been found inside jails run by his interior ministry.
"We kept telling the US and the UN that there are such prisons, and that all the prison are full of Sunnis," says Nabil Mohammed Yunis, a political scientist and consultant with the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is one of the prominent groups in a multiparty Sunni slate named the Iraqi Consensus Front. The prisons are an "issue that will push others to participate in the elections. People want to see that there will be a political balance in the government, so that such prisons will be closed, because most of the people in them are innocent."
At an appliance shop in downtown Baghdad, several Sunni shop managers talk about the elections in hushed tones, stopping the conversation when their Shiite employees come within earshot.
"A lot of bad things have been happening on the ground since Shiites captured the government," says Bassem As-Shumari, one of the managers. The men say that most government-employed Sunnis have been thrown out of their jobs, and there has been an increase in random arrests and disappearances.
Co-worker Taha Sheikhli says that his brother-in-law was among a group of Sunnis brought before a Shiite-run court in Sadr City. He says his brother-in-law was released with the demand he pay 2 million Iraqi dinars [about $1,380] in protection money or see his family killed; they fled to Syria instead.
"This is not a pure democracy," says Mr. Sheikhli. "We'll do our duty, so I'll vote for a Sunni party, but I what I really want is someone to unify the country, not increase divisions."
Theirs is a familiar theme heard across Iraq's complicated ethnic and political spectrum. Sheikhli and Mr. As-Shumar, like many Sunnis, say they are voting for the Iraqi Consensus Front - a slate consisting of the three main Sunni parties - but say they also support Iyad Allawi, the former prime minister, who is a secular Shiite.
"I like Allawi," says As-Shumar, "because he cares about Iraq, not which sect you're from." If they were able to cast two ballots, the men said, they'd give their vote for parliament to the Sunni parties, and a second vote to Mr. Allawi for prime minister.
Indeed, they view Allawi as the figure who can crack down on Iraq's spiraling insecurity. But that tough image is read differently by others. Religious Shiites have been painting Allawi as a neo-Baathist, attacking him with posters that compare him to Saddam Hussein.
Beyond the allegations of prisoner abuse, many Sunnis are heading to the ballot box hoping to prevent the country from being partitioned.
The draft of the Iraqi constitution, passed in a referendum in October, raises the prospect of a federalist system that will increase autonomy for Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south. Many Sunnis fear that will leave them increasingly powerless - and potentially deprived of oil-wealth - in the middle.
"Our campaign is against sectarian divisions, and so our first priority is to rewrite the constitution," says Naseer Al-Ani, a political officer for the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the leading parties on the Sunni slate. The party's vice president, Ayad al-Samaray, says he fears interference in the election process at polling stations around the country, which are likely to be under the thumb of parties trying to get elected.
In western Iraq, in the heart of the Sunni insurgency, voter turnout is also expected to be high. In the town of Huseybah, the campaign posters feature dead Iraqis, labeled as "martyrs." The posters promote a list of candidates headed by Adnan Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab leader whose tribe is one of the most influential in the region and is believed to have credibility with insurgents.
He has made clear his opposition to the presence of American troops in Iraq, which has boosted his popularity in the eyes of many Arab Sunnis. His decision to participate and to encourage Sunnis to vote is seen by some American officials as a sign that Sunni leaders would depart from their murky support for insurgents, and instead use the political process to address their grievances.
But as Mr. Dulaimi popularity indicates, some voters see democracy and support for the insurgency not as mutually exclusive ideas. Many Iraqis here say they support the American and Iraqi military presence in town to keep it safe, but they also plan to vote for Dulaimi or rival Sunni candidate Saleh Mutlaq. Both candidates have made opposition to the American military presence the cornerstone of their appeal to average Sunnis.
"Saleh Mutlaq is personable and straigthtforward. He's a good man and he knows his country,'' says Watha Naqab, standing in a narrow street as US marines and Iraqi soldiers hand him a leaflet encouraging him to vote.
"We want Adnan Dulaimi because we've known [his organization] for a long time,'' says Mohammed Mahdi, squatting next to an 18-wheel truck he's repairing. He lists the benefits he expects from the election. "We want security. Hopefully after the election everything will be better."
The Sunni candidates here are also playing on themes of Sunni disenfranchisement and opposition to the new constitution.
The more Sunnis that win seats in this national election, the greater their chance to alter the constitution when the body sits. "The Sunni parties have done a pretty good job about getting the word out about disenfranchisement,'' says Lt. Col. Robert Glover, who heads the Marines rebuilding and compensation programs in the area.