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Some Iraqi Sunnis Will Seek Changes Through the Ballot Box

In marked contrast to Iraqi elections held last January 30th, the country's Sunni Muslim community is expected to vote in large numbers when national elections are held Wednesday. Sunnis say their boycott of the January elections enabled rival Shi'ite Muslims and Kurds to win an overwhelming majority in parliament, worsening sectarian and ethnic tensions. They are now vowing to correct their mistake.

Hatem Muklis may not be a household name in Iraq. But, as the physician-turned Iraqi political candidate tells television viewers here, his Iraqi National Movement party has ambitious plans to help build a new future for his war-torn homeland. He addressed other Iraqis, "My fellow Iraqis. We have entered this election, with the help of God, to lift the suffering of the Iraqi people, to restore human rights, and to save our country."

On campaign stops -- like this one at a doctors' union headquarters in Baghdad -- Dr. Muklis' makes no mention of the fact that he is a Sunni Muslim, the religious minority that suddenly found itself out of power after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and has been the backbone of Iraq's insurgency.

The Iraqi National Movement party bills itself as a nationalist group, which embraces all segments of Iraqi society, not just Sunni Arabs.

But Dr. Muklis acknowledges that he has put extra time, money, and effort into reaching out to Sunni communities throughout Iraq.

He says he believes a large Sunni turnout in the next election will be the key to moving the country away from war and toward stability.

"Sunni Arabs did not participate the last time and what happened is we have a transitional assembly that is not truly representative of the Iraqi people,” he said. “Being enticed into the political process will calm the masses, will bring them on the right track to rebuild Iraq and to calm this unnecessary violence and bloodshed."

That change in thinking, at least among the majority of Iraqi Sunnis, is visible just about everywhere.

In January, there were no campaign posters like the one currently displayed in the upscale Mansour District of Baghdad.

The poster urges people to vote for a coalition of three powerful Sunni parties, including Iraq's largest Sunni organization, the Iraqi Islamic Party. Eleven months ago, the group had urged its followers to boycott the elections.

Saad Abdul Wahab, the spokesman for the Iraqi Islamist party, says conditions have changed. "It has become our duty to participate in elections because that is the only way we will be able to get rid of all of the problems Iraq has suffered in the past three years."

One of those problems has been the alarming rise of tension between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims. Each side accuses the other of carrying out hundreds of sectarian killings.

More recently, Sunnis have charged that Iraq's current Shi'ite-led government is integrating Shi'ite militias into its security forces to round up, torture, and kill Sunni Muslims.

Sunnis are also concerned about a provision in the new constitution, which gives broad powers to regional governments in the oil-rich Shi'ite-dominated south and the Kurdish-dominated north of the country.

Sunnis say unless they can elect enough Sunni lawmakers who can amend the provision, they fear they will be cut out of Iraq's oil wealth.

Still, there are Sunnis who insist that next week's elections can only be considered legitimate if coalition forces leave Iraq soon after.

Sheikh Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi is a member of the conservative Association of Muslim Scholars, which issued a religious edict forbidding Sunnis to take part in the January elections.

Mr. Kubaisi says, this time, his group will let Sunnis decide for themselves. But he warns that the Sunni-led insurgency in Iraq will not stop, just because they participate in elections. "We will only endorse the elections as being legitimate, if and when the occupiers name a date for their troops to leave Iraq."

Dr. Muklis says he believes such talk is counterproductive. He says he hopes every Iraqi who can vote will vote, regardless of the situation. He says the country's future depends on it.