Chief of the Association of Muslim Scholars Harth al-Dhari, right, speaks with Moqtada al-Sadr's representative Abdul-Hadi al-Daraji (File Photo - Feb. 15, 2005)
In Iraq, influential Sunni and Shi'ite leaders say they will work together to calm sectarian tensions. Two organizations at the center of a bitter public dispute said after a meeting that they will not let the country slide into a civil war.

Officials from the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni clerical group seen as close to some insurgent factions, held a first round of talks with the Badr Organization, the military wing of Iraq's largest Shi'ite political party, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

Bitter inter-sectarian feuding gained public scrutiny in mid-May, following the murders of several clerics from both sects.

Harith al-Dhari, the secretary-general of the Sunni association, blamed the Badr militia for the apparent torture and execution of two Sunni religious figures earlier this month.

Mr. al-Dhari's accusations angered many Shi'ites, who see themselves as the main target of car bombings by Sunni insurgents in Baghdad and other cities.

As tensions escalated, radical Shi'ite cleric express emerged after months of lying low, offering to mediate between the Sunni association and the Shiite Supreme Council.

Mr. al-Sadr, a staunch opponent of the continued U.S. troop presence in Iraq, heads his own separate political and military network. After fighting U.S. troops in Najaf and Sadr City last year, he now appears to be edging toward political participation. Even before the meeting, both sides in the dispute appeared to be conciliatory.

At the Buratha Mosque on Friday, preacher Jalal al-Din Saghir, a Supreme Council member elected to Iraq's National Assembly, said the Sunnis were brothers, who needed to be fully included in the current political process. In Mr. Saghir's words, the Iraqi people are becoming united against the terrorists.

At the Umm al-Qura mosque, meanwhile, a Sunni preacher talked about the need for equality for all Iraqis, without majority Shi'ites being placed above Sunnis.

The Sunnis, the more privileged group under the former regime of Saddam Hussein, fear being excluded in the new political order.

Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, part of a broad Shi'ite-dominated parliamentary bloc, set aside six Cabinet posts for Sunnis, hoping to ensure that all Iraqis would feel represented in his government.

U.S. officials have been stressing the need for Iraq's new elected leaders to reach out, in particular to the disaffected Sunni Muslim population. During a recent visit to Iraq, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed U.S. concerns that the constitution currently being drafted reflect the country's diverse ethnic and religious makeup.

An official from the Sunni association, Esam al-Rawi, said that problems should be resolved in the spirit of Islamic brotherhood.

He likened Iraq's Sunnis and Shi'ites to squabbling family members, who are all still Muslims.

An official from Moqtada al-Sadr's office said the two sides overcame many obstacles at the meeting. He said another meeting would be held this week, and that Sunni-Shi'ite reconciliation could pave the way for a national gathering.