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Iraq's Main Sunni Party Refuses to Take Part in Government

In a setback to Iraqi hopes of creating an inclusive transitional government after last Sunday's historic elections, the country's largest Sunni-Arab political party announced on Saturday that it will take no part in government, except in the drafting of the country's constitution.

The Iraqi Islamic Party did not take part in last Sunday's vote. In December, it withdrew from the race, arguing that anti-democracy violence in Sunni-dominated areas would hinder Sunni turnout and lead to an unfair vote.

Following national polls, in which relatively few Sunni Arabs voted, Iraqi Islamic Party leader Tariq al-Hashimi, told reporters Saturday that his group will not recognize the legitimacy of Iraq's new 275-member national assembly. He added that none of the party's members will participate in the interim government, which will be appointed by the assembly.

"Whatever might be the offers, we will have no participation in these two organizations," he said.

The Iraqi Islamic Party's position mirrors that of another prominent Sunni group, the Association of Muslim Scholars. Earlier this week, the group, considered the highest religious authority among Iraqi Sunnis, warned that the elections would produce an illegitimate government, because many Sunnis boycotted the polls.

Such talk has raised concern that the election results, expected to be finalized in the coming week, could fuel Iraq's Sunni-led insurgency and worsen sectarian tensions.

But Mr. Hashimi hinted that Iraq's new government could avert a looming crisis, if Sunni Arab groups could take an active part in the drafting of the constitution.

"The most important thing is the constitution," he said. "Drafting of the constitution is a very, very important issue for all Iraqis, and we have to be very clear in that."

On Thursday, several largely-Sunni groups, which boycotted the elections, including Iraqi Islamic Party, met at the Baghdad home of a Sunni elder statesman, Adnan Pachachi. That meeting reportedly produced an agreement to participate in the drafting of the constitution.

Mr. Hashimi further clarified that agreement on Saturday, saying his group is hoping to participate as members of a committee of legal experts, appointed by the new national assembly.

The decision to take an active role in shaping the constitution is seen as a major shift in thinking among many Sunni Arabs who opposed the polls.

Iraq's five million Sunni Arabs formed the core of Saddam Hussein's regime, and many saw the U.S.-led election process as an effort to punish Sunnis, and reward the country's long-suffering Shi'ite Muslims and Kurds, who together make up 80 percent of the population.

Political observers say the failure of insurgents to dampen the turnout of Shi'ite and Kurdish voters last Sunday appears to have convinced some Sunnis that Iraq is on the path to becoming a democratic state, with or without Sunni participation.