In Iraq, the interim Iraqi government and the U.S. military are doubling efforts to improve security in the country and to persuade reluctant Sunni Arabs to vote in elections in less than two weeks. Diyala province, north of Baghdad, is one of several areas where Sunni Muslims are in the majority and where anti-democracy Sunni insurgents have been sowing chaos in recent months. The governor of Diyala is racing against time, and the odds, to try to make peace with angry Sunnis in the region.
A Muslim cleric chants prayers from the Koran at the start of a unique conference at the provincial capital building in Baqubah on Tuesday.
Sitting at the dais, the provincial governor, the chief of police, and the commander of the Iraqi army in Diyala face an audience of about 150 people, including some of the province's most wanted Sunni Muslim insurgents and their sympathizers.
In a solemn voice, Governor Abdullah Hassan Rashid al-Jabouri tells the insurgents that this would be their last chance before the January 30th elections to air their grievances and to request amnesty from prosecution.
The people of this province should be protecting each other. It is shameful that we do so many terrible things to each other and then point the finger of blame on foreigners, the governor scolds the audience. He goes on to say, this is why we are having a day of forgiveness. Come forward, tell us your problems, and be forgiven for what you have done.
The idea of coaxing insurgents to renounce violence in exchange for amnesty is not new. In the past year, the interim Iraqi government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has proposed giving amnesty for militants, so long as they have not committed murder.
Like Prime Minister Allawi, Governor Jabouri says he believes that while there are religious extremists who will not compromise, many other insurgents have legitimate political and economic grievances, which could be discussed at a bargaining table.
To that end, Mr. Jabouri has tried for the past year-and-a-half to use his influence as a member of one of the country's largest Sunni Arab tribes to woo disgruntled Sunnis away from the hardcore militants, who are trying to gain a foothold in Diyala. Extremist groups have tried to assassinate the governor 14 times for his efforts, but even that has not lessened his determination to get the job done.
But with nearly half of the majority Sunni Muslim population here unemployed and the government unable to create jobs for them, Mr. Jabouri acknowledges that it has been difficult to calm their anger. "We have a lot of jobless (people), a lot of unemployed because the majority was in the army. Most of the people in the resistance, as they call themselves, were in the army," he said.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein in April, 2003, the U.S.-led coalition government under Paul Bremer disbanded the Iraqi army, leaving some half a million combat-trained Iraqi men out of work. Many wound up on the payroll of militant Sunni Muslim insurgent groups, who recruited them to plant roadside bombs and to attack U.S. military convoys.
But a local Sunni cleric, who has been accused of inciting violence against U.S. troops, says losing their jobs was only one of the reasons why some Sunni Arabs joined the insurgency and why many others support it.
The imam, Fouad Mahmoud Atiyah, says he believes much of the Sunni anger stems from the belief that the United States blatantly favors the country's majority Shiite Muslims and is deliberately working to marginalize a large chunk of the Sunni population in Iraq because it supported fellow Sunni Arab, Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Atiyah says every U.S.-led raid of a Sunni home deepens that suspicion and creates an ever-growing number of angry Sunnis for the Americans to fight.
Expressing a view that is clearly at odds with U.S. military assertions, Mr. Atiyah says American troops are arbitrarily raiding homes and arresting Sunnis for no reason. He says such acts are prompting even the most peaceful people to become insurgents. U.S. commanders say they only search homes where they have strong evidence that insurgents are operating.
A U.S.-sponsored survey released on Thursday confirms that a majority of Sunni Arabs, who make up roughly 20-percent of Iraq's 26 million people, are deeply anxious about their status in post-Saddam Iraq.
Fewer than 20 percent of the Sunnis surveyed said that they are very likely to vote in the crucial elections January 30 to choose a new assembly that will draft the country's constitution. Only 15 percent said that they believe there is a candidate or a party in the elections that represents their views.
Sunni tribal leader, Sheikh Falah Hadi al-Obeidi, who supports the ballot, says most Sunni Arabs are not opposed to the idea of holding democratic elections. But many are not happy with the way the transitional political process was set up, which they say skews the elections against them. "They are afraid to vote because there is no accurate way to vote what they want, the proper person they want," he said.
Seats in the new, 275-member national assembly will be allocated, not based on vote results in districts or provinces, but on nationwide vote results. With the insurgency raging in areas where the Sunni minority lives, they are concerned that not enough people will be able to vote. That would crush the chance for Sunni Arab slates to win their fair share of seats.
The situation has discouraged many Sunni parties from running and campaigning, further boosting the likelihood that Iraq's long-oppressed Shiite majority will win by an overwhelming margin at the polls and take power.
Many Sunni leaders have asked for a delay in the election date so they can better organize and hope for calm in the Sunni areas. But President Bush has ruled out any postponement on the grounds that it would be seen as a victory for the insurgency.
Back at the peace conference, the governor of Diyala province handed out forms to insurgents and sympathizers, who agreed to seek amnesty. The forms were oaths, printed in both Arabic and English, pledging, among other things, that they would not support acts of violence or intimidation against voters and not incite violence against U.S. and Iraqi forces.
About 50 people signed the form, but some of the men indicated that they had no intention of honoring it. "It is just a piece of paper. It means nothing to me," one young man said with a smile.