Sunnis now want to join Iraq politics

Sunni leaders met last weekend to unite in their cause and negotiate with Shiites and Kurds.

Two years after war dramatically changed Iraq's political landscape, the former ruling minority Sunnis are developing plans to participate in a government formed by elections they boycotted.

In a significant shift, several Sunni groups that hitherto shunned the political process met last weekend to create a unified front and set of demands that they will present to the Shiite and Kurdish leaders now hammering out a new government.

The meeting was a reversal for Sunni leaders who have supported insurgents and urged US troops to leave Iraq immediately.

The new effort, observers say, appears to be an admission that their strategy - to stop Iraq's election and denounce the formation of a new government - has failed. Bringing the former ruling class into Iraq's emerging power structure, they add, could help quell the insurgency.

"Participation of the Sunnis is both religiously important and politically important," says John Esposito, a professor at Georgetown University who specializes in Islam and international affairs. "It can establish a precedent for other Sunni leaders to become involved."

The significance of the conference was underscored by its attendees. Participants included members of the Muslim Scholars Association, a group of Sunni religious leaders, among them some of the most extreme figures who have influence with the insurgency.

Also present were leaders from cities in the "Sunni Triangle," including Mosul, Haditha, and Salam Pak, which is bubbling with insurgent activity. Representatives of Waqaf Sunna, the powerful administrating body of Sunni religious affairs, attended as well.

Need for street credibility

Some Sunnis have previously tried to assert themselves as representatives of the diverse minority. Returned exile Adnan Pachachi, current vice president Ghazi Yawar, and some members of the Islamic Party formed a coalition a few weeks ago.

But their group has little, if any, credibility because it does not share the strong anti-occupation sentiments of most Sunnis or hold sway over the insurgency.

"For the past two years, there has been no real representative of the Sunnis in Iraq. Now there is a real attempt to form a representative of all Sunnis," says Ibnayan al-Jarba, who helped organize the meeting. "The security situation in general will not improve if [the new political leaders] do not hear from us. We have a direct effect on the [Sunnis] in the street."

Mr. Jarba says a group was chosen at the meeting to fan out among Sunni tribal, religious, and political leaders in the next few weeks to solidify a base of Sunni support and then begin talks with Shiite and Kurd leaders about their demands.

Jarba says that includes a meeting this weekend with Harith al-Dhari, a leader of the Muslim Scholars Association, which eschews political participation.

"There is a lot matching in our ideas and the Muslim Scholars Association," Jarba says.

The sudden activity in the Sunni community, explains former election candidate Sherif Ali bin al-Hussein, will start a path toward negotiations that will eventually call for a laying down of arms in exchange for inclusion in the power structure.

"We are trying to exploit the [post-election] trauma of the Sunnis coming face-to-face with the loss of their power," says Mr. Hussein, who failed to win a seat but is trying now, as a Sunni and prince from the royal family that once ruled Iraq, to facilitate the process. "Already they have come to terms with participating in the next election, across the board, 100 percent."

Thorny demands

The list produced by the meeting includes demands that Sunni interests are provided for in Iraq's permanent constitution, which the national assembly is charged with writing this year.

But it also includes thornier demands such as recognition that Iraqis have a right to oppose US occupation, a schedule be developed for US forces to leave Iraq, reversal of US de-Baathification policy in the military, and the release of all detainees for whom there is no solid evidence they committed a crime. They also want a Sunni in a top job in the country's security apparatus, particularly the Ministry of Interior.

Shiites are taking note of the shift in Sunni willingness to participate and are taking the emerging group seriously as the first real representatives of the Sunnis.

"The most important thing is that they create a [leadership] for Sunnis," says Humam Hamoudi, a candidate from the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), a group of Shiite religious leaders that won the majority of national assembly seats.

The UIA has struggled to find Sunnis willing to negotiate who also have clout in the Sunni community. But Mr. Hamoudi says those efforts were renewed after the top Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, instructed them to do so.

"He appealed to us to take more care of Sunnis' rights. He said, 'Sunnis are not only our brothers but they are yourselves,' so treat them accordingly," Hamoudi says.

If Sunnis don't participate, says Mr. Esposito, they will be further alienated by a government dominated by Shiites. Experience in other countries, he says, suggests this could lead to sectarian trouble.

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