American officials in Baghdad have formally rejected a request by Sunni-Arab clerics to set a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal in exchange for Sunni participation in Iraqi elections on January 30.
U.S. officials say they have turned down a proposal under which Sunni political parties would lift their boycott of the elections because, as one embassy spokesman noted, "the United States is not prepared to establish a date for withdrawing more than 150,000 troops from Iraq."
It is not known if other options are being discussed.
The Association of Muslim Scholars made the proposal to senior U.S. embassy officials during a meeting on Saturday. The association is an influential religious body, which groups 3000 Sunni mosques across Iraq and is considered the highest Sunni religious authority in the country.
The association has always said that it would not participate in elections while U.S. troops remained in Iraq. But shortly before the U.S-led assault on the troubled Sunni town of Fallujah in November, the religious group went further, calling for a total boycott of the January 30 polls.
Some moderate Sunni political groups say they would like to participate, but believe Sunni-dominated areas of the country are too dangerous for voters. They fear voter turnout may not be sufficient to have an impact on the elections.
With only three weeks to go, talks on Saturday suggested that both the Sunni leadership and the United States are hoping to find a compromise to bring Iraq's Sunni community back into the political process.
Sunni Arabs comprise the second-largest population in Iraq, making up about 20 percent of the country's 26 million people. There is growing fear that if the Sunnis do not participate in the ballot, election results may lack credibility.
Despite a looming Sunni boycott, the Iraqi Electoral Commission says preparations for the elections are moving ahead.
The commission's spokesman, Fareed Ayar, says that a total of 111 political parties are on the ballot, competing for seats in the 275-member National Assembly that will form the next government and draft Iraq's new constitution.
If security permits, Mr. Ayar says the commission believes at least 40 percent of the 14 million eligible people will be able to cast their votes on election day. He says he believes it will herald a new start for a country, which has not seen even limited democratic elections for more than half a century.
"It is not a big percentage, but it is the first election,” he said. “We have to go on even if the percentage is not too high. We have organized everything in six months, which is a short period for a big huge election. But we have decided to go on with it, even if there are hundreds of problems."
Mr. Ayar predicts final poll results will not be known for at least a week. He says that is because it will take time for the electoral commission to collect and count votes from Iraqi expatriates, who are also eligible to vote.
Election workers in 14 countries are preparing the logistics of giving an estimated one million overseas Iraqis a voice in the country's next government.