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Sunni Leaders in Iraq Urge Followers to Participate in Politics


Iraqi lawmakers wait while votes are counted at the National Assembly meeting in Baghdad, Iraq
Sunni politicians and clerics in Iraq are urging fellow Sunni Muslims to play a larger role in Iraq's political future by registering to vote in elections, scheduled for December 15. The call comes amid rising sectarian tensions between the country's Sunni Arabs and majority Shi'ite Muslims, who dominate Iraq's current interim government.

Representatives of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's largest Sunni political group, were among dozens of Sunni politicians and clerics who gathered in Baghdad Thursday to discuss plans for participating in the December 15 general elections.

Iraqi Islamic Party spokesman Ammar Wajeeh says many Sunnis have come to regret their decision to boycott the elections in January, which helped rival Shi'ite Muslims and ethnic Kurds win control of the new government.

"I was sitting in the middle of the hall and I heard all the clerics around me," said Mr. Wajeeh. "And they were so excited to participate in the elections. We should participate, not only for the benefit of the Sunni people, but for the unity of Iraq, to stop the bleeding of Iraq."

That attitude marks a significant turnaround for a group that had adamantly opposed being a part of Iraq's new U.S.-backed political process.

Sunnis, who make up about one-fifth of Iraq's population of 26 million, dominated all aspects of society under former dictator Saddam Hussein and felt marginalized after his ouster in April 2003.

Sunni Arabs formed the core of Iraq's insurgency, and in January, hard-line Sunni clerics persuaded many ordinary Sunnis to stay away from the polls.

Only 17 Sunni Arabs were elected into the new 275-member National Assembly, giving Sunnis little voice in the day-to-day running of government. Mr. Wajeeh says most Sunni leaders and clerics now view the boycott as a major mistake.

There has been evidence of increasing Sunni political participation, especially at the local level. Earlier this month, 22,000 Sunnis went to the polls in the town of Duluiyah in Salahadin Province to elect members to the town council. In January, fewer than 400 people voted in the farming community of 54,000.

Last Tuesday, 15 Sunni Arabs joined a 55-member committee of Shi'ites, Kurds and other Iraqi groups to draft a new constitution by August 15. A national referendum on the constitution is scheduled for October 15 and December elections would choose a new permanent government.

But relations between Iraqi Sunnis and Shi'ites remain tense after months of sectarian violence and numerous killings.

The latest case involves the deaths of 10 Sunni men, whose bodies were found Wednesday, after they were taken by Iraqi security forces in early morning raids. Sunni leaders say another nine Sunni Arabs have also died this week, while in police custody.

Many of the allegations have centered on elite Iraqi commando units, largely made up of Shi'ite Muslims.

Mr. Wajeeh of the Iraqi Islamic Party says he fears that ordinary Sunnis may reject political efforts to unify Sunnis with Shi'ites, if allegations of abuse and murder continue to dominate the headlines.

"We are afraid a war may happen between our people. Really, we think the minister of interior should find a solution for this. Otherwise, things will go worse and worse," added Mr. Wajeeh.

Interior ministry officials, who are in charge of the police commandos, say they have launched an investigation into the deaths of the Sunni men.

The government of Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari has acknowledged that abuse of detainees has taken place. But Iraqi officials deny Sunni charges that the government condones such acts.

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