A new Sunni strategy in Iraq

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

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.

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.

But Mr. Ani's group offers a cautionary tale in the perils of balancing credibility among Sunnis while supporting participation in the political process.

After campaigning for Sunnis to vote "no" in the constitutional referendum, the Iraqi Islamic Party suddenly agreed with US, Shiite, and Kurdish negotiators, and called for Sunnis to support the document just three days before the referendum. A deal was struck to make it easier to amend the constitution in the future. The move was hailed by US and Iraqis government leaders, but to average Sunnis it was a sellout.

"It was not a good change [to support the constitution]. It's not a normal change because there are many influences on this decision and not all the Sunni demands were fulfilled," says Abdel Tahman, a Sunni who voted, hinting that Iran or the US had a hand in the party's last-minute change in opinion, reflecting the sentiment of many Sunnis who voted against the constitution. "The reaction of the Sunni street was built on passion and emotion because they didn't [see] what the Islamic Party [did] in a good way," says Salim al-Jabouri, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, conceding that the decision cost them in credibility.

"[But] it's only a matter of time, and in the coming days people will change their minds on the Islamic Party and they will understand the Islamic Party point of view on the matter," he says.

Getting average Sunnis to vote in December's polls may not be as difficult as it once seemed. The high turnout in Sunni Arab regions of Iraq in the constitutional referendum showed that average Sunnis are now more engaged in the political process. But spreading a sense that Sunnis are better off supporting the political process rather than the insurgency still remains a challenge.

Indeed, in the midst of the Sunni political maneuvering, and barely two weeks after the country approved a permanent constitution, dozens of Iraqi citizens and security forces have died in bombings, shootings, and other violence throughout the country.

On Tuesday, the US military death toll surpassed the 2,000 mark. The day before, two car bombs and a massive cement-truck bomb that targeted a Baghdad hotel used by foreigners killed at least 10 Iraqi civilians, a smaller attack that had broad impact because the spectacular explosions were caught on camera.

One main reason Sunnis don't feel they are stakeholders in governing their own country is the widespread fear that the elected government - and its security services - is targeting them.

Sadia Yousef, is a common example. After voting in the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum, she waved her hand, the purple ink barely dried on her finger after voting "no." Overwraught, she described how her nephew disappeared into the custody of the Ministry of Interior three months ago.

"He is only a student, only a student," she said emphatically from under a loosely tied head scarf. "He is an innocent man. So kind ... he is not political, he is an educated man."

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