Since election, Shiites build bridges to Iraq's minorities

High-ranking Shiite officials say accommodating Sunnis in the new government is key to curbing the insurgency

Bakar Humam Hammoudi, a leader of one of the Shiite religious parties that are poised to become the country's most important political force, sips tea in his garden on a springlike day. As he speaks of a new, inclusive Iraqi politics in the sunlight, the brutal realities of the war seem far away.

He's waiting for important guests - a large delegation of Sunni clerics and politicians. "They're coming because of the success of the elections," says Mr. Hammoudi, a senior member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). "I think most of our differences can be solved with talk. We're determined to build a coalition government."

Since Iraq's Jan. 30 elections, hardly a day has gone by without high-level contacts between Iraq's majority Shiites and the Sunni Arab minority that made up Iraq's governing elite under Saddam Hussein and is fueling the country's insurgency. But it remains an open question whether these moderate Sunni leaders will be able to deliver peace in exchange for a role in the process. Even as Hammoudi was meeting the Sunni leaders on Monday, insurgents killed 27 Iraqi soldiers and policemen in Baquba and Mosul.

On Tuesday, an attacker in a suicide vest killed 21 Iraqis in central Baghdad, and there have been at least 20 smaller attacks this week. Tuesday's attack was claimed by Iraq's branch of Al Qaeda, headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

The spike in violence shows how difficult managing Iraq's transition will be for the country's new leaders. While some Sunni leaders who rejected the elections are now scrambling for a role in writing Iraq's constitution, they either don't control those carrying out the attacks or are allowing the bloodshed to continue.

Election results delayed

Wednesday, Iraqi officials said election results, which were scheduled for release Thursday, will be held up for "days" because of irregularities with about 300 ballot boxes.

Provisional results show the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shiite religious parties like SCIRI and smaller secular groups, will probably take about half of the seats in the 275-member assembly that will write Iraq's new constitution and govern the country until it is passed.

The country's ethnic Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of the population, look set to win some 55 seats, while the third-largest party, led by Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite, should take about 40 seats. And preliminary numbers from the mostly Sunni Arab Salahuddin confirm low Sunni turnout in the election. Only 230,000 votes were cast in a province of about 950,000 people.

If the Kurds and the Shiite Arabs can work together in parliament, they should have the two-thirds needed to form a government without input from any other party. But there are differences between these two groups as well, each seeing itself as the biggest victim of Saddam's tyranny.

The Kurds have been pushing for the oil-rich city of Kirkuk to be included in the autonomous region they're carving out in the north, but the main Shiite factions say this is a nonstarter. "The demand of the Iraqi people is to keep the status of Kirkuk as it is now," says Hammoudi. "The Kurdish leadership doesn't seem to understand this yet, so we need the help of the Americans to explain this to them."

These early numbers leave little room for Sunni Arab representation in the assembly. Shiite leaders say they're looking for ways to increase Sunni Arab participation in the constitutional drafting process, because they fear the consequences if they don't.

"If we don't have consensus, we're going to have another crisis," says Hamid al-Bayati, another SCIRI official and current deputy foreign minister.

Mr. Bayati knows at first hand the insurgency is far from over. Family members of this 20-year exile were repeatedly arrested and tortured during the Hussein regime, to punish them for his political activism. That threat has hardly diminished. About two months ago, his brother was abducted in what Bayati calls a "very professional abduction" from a street in a neighborhood where many former intelligence officials and officers from Mr. Hussein's old army lives.

The family received occasional calls from the captors, in which they lambasted the Bayatis with nationalist rhetoric that convinced them that the criminals were members of Hussein's now-outlawed Baath Party.

The day before the election, Bayati got a call telling him his brother's body had been discovered. Speaking in calm tones, he says the only reason they found out about the death was because his brother had the presence of mind to scrawl his name and a telephone number inside his underwear before he was killed.

While Bayati wants the killers brought to justice, revenge hasn't entered his mind. "We have to reach out to the Muslim Clerics Committee, even though people say they have ties to the kidnappers," he says. The Clerics Committee is a prominent Sunni group that called for a boycott of the election. "Of course there are those like Zarqawi or those that say the solution is to bring the Baath back. They can't be negotiated with."

Sunnis under pressure as well

But the Sunni Arabs who the Shiite leaders are dealing with are also in a precarious position. On Monday, when members of the Islamic Clerics Committee and the Iraqi Islamic Party, another Sunni group who boycotted the election, met with Hammoudi, they rolled up in five Mercedes, behind tinted windows protecting their identities. They asked for a closed meeting. "We wanted this to be open to the public, but the Sunnis are feeling pressure from their own side," says Hammoudi, who was jailed and tortured by Hussein until his own exile. "This is a little strange - it's like we're protecting Sunnis from other Sunnis."

An aide to Hammoudi said the meeting went well, though it resulted only in an agreement to form a joint working committee to explore how Sunni demands can be met. Adnan Pachachi, a prominent secular Sunni Arab who led a list that is likely to win a few seats in the assembly, has called this week for a national reconciliation conference to ease Sunni fears.

"This is not a problem between Sunnis and Shiites," he says. "I was jailed with Sunnis from ... Tikrit," Saddam Hussein's home town. "We're not fighting Sunnis. We're fighting the old regime."

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