Far from the violence of this country's turbulent capital, the emerging Shiite and Kurdish leaders of Iraq's new democracy hunkered down in a northern mountain retreat to plan, they say, a pluralistic government that would embrace disenfranchised Sunni Arabs.
The stakes of such meetings are enormous. While certainly the beginning of political horse-trading that will stretch over the coming weeks, the challenge will be to unite groups with widely different views into one ruling coalition. A consensus-based process could create a government stabilized through the buy-in of all Iraqis.
But with Sunni Arab leaders left behind in Baghdad questioning the legitimacy of the Dec. 15 vote, so far the process has only marginalized these political have-nots who, as the backbone of insurgent support, hold the keys to ensuring stability in Iraq.
Certainly Sunnis are part of negotiations, says Mohammed Amin al-Delawe with a wave of his hand, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party for central and southern Iraq. "Not only the Sunnis but all the other lists that won. [Shiite and Kurdish parties will work with them] without looking at the number of seats each has. Everyone should take part in the government and that will close the hole that the terrorists come in through."
But as he spoke, Sunnis were not in northern Iraq getting to know their fellow Council of Representatives members, but instead were focused on negotiations with the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI). More than 1,500 formal complaints have been issued with the IECI, which oversees the elections. Sunnis are lobbying hard for investigations into reports of voting irregularities.
On Wednesday, the United Nations endorsed the Dec. 15 vote, saying that the results were credible.
"We believe it's too early to be talking about forming the government. We should turn the page of the elections and then talk about forming the government," says Salim al-Jabouri, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of three main groups that made up the leading Sunni list of candidates. "We believe that there is an unfairness committed against us during and before the elections. A lot of seats were taken from us, from the [provinces] that represent us, and given to other [provinces]."
Unlike last January's election for an interim government where the total number of votes nationwide determined how many seats each list of candidates won, this time around seats in the Council of Representatives were allocated by province. That gives some assurance to the various ethnic groups that they will get representation in the new parliament since Iraq's regions are roughly analogous to religious and ethnic groupings.
The view from the winners' side, however, is quite different.
"Some of these groups complain or do activities against the whole process because they got fewer votes than expected," says Mr. Delawe of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. "There was some kinds of cheating but not that much."
Underlying the sharp divisions among Iraq's ethnic and religious groups is the history of a country that never decided on its own to be one nation.
Modern Iraq was essentially a frontier between the Ottoman and Persian Empires until early last century. Shiites, Sunnis, and ethnically separate Kurds made their homes on the same land but did not consider themselves part of a single country. That was created by British forces that occupied the country after World War I and, like the US today, tried to establish a national parliament and national government amid much fighting between Sunni and Shiites. Those efforts, including Shiite boycotts of elections and participation in the government, laid the groundwork for the Sunni domination during Saddam Hussein's regime.
Today the roles are reversed. Jawad al-Maliki, a member of the leading Shiite coalition who heads a committee for negotiating with the Kurds, says Shiites aren't the ones who can appease Sunni anger over the vote.
"The Sunnis talk about violations or forgeries that happened in their provinces. The United Nations and the election courts and election commission, they are responsible for dealing with the situation, not us," he says. But at the same time, "We want everyone to participate and not to push anyone out of the process. We want everyone to enter the circle."
But a key provision in the Constitution will make any circle of inclusion a difficult one to draw. Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Shiite candidates that will hold the majority in the parliament, made clear in a press conference this week that a constitutional provision that would allow Shiites to create their own semi-autonomous region in oil-rich southern Iraq is sacred and unlikely to be altered despite Sunni objections.
"The first priority is of course changing the Constitution," says Jabouri from the leading Sunni list. "We will have two choices. First, being a part of the new government or the other option is forming an opposition front inside the parliament and all the options are inside the political process."
But average Sunnis like Jassem Mohammed, already feel slighted by the political process. He sees only one option if the Shiite and Kurdish parties don't give Sunnis a meaningful role in governing the country. "We will have nothing left to do, only fighting," says Mohammed, a former army leader under Mr. Hussein.