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Iraq’s Sunni Arabs Seek to Unite to Build Political Clout

Times Staff Writer

A newly formed alliance of Sunni Muslim leaders held its first meeting here Saturday to forge plans for gaining a greater voice in Iraq’s emerging political culture.

But the session’s acrimonious exchanges and demands on the country’s fledgling Shiite leadership made it clear that Sunnis had a long way to go before they could recover any of the clout they lost when President Saddam Hussein was toppled by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The Sunni congress Saturday, attended by 1,000 delegates, demanded the resignation of newly appointed Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, a Shiite. At a news conference, Jabr rejected the call and said that the failure of most Sunni Arabs to vote in the Jan. 30 national election had resulted in a self-inflicted exclusion.

“Those who didn’t vote have no right to ask for this,” he said.

The minority community, which accounts for less than 20% of Iraq’s population, was favored under the regime of Hussein, who was a Sunni.

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Shiites, about 60% of the population, and ethnic Kurds, both oppressed by Hussein’s Baathist regime, now hold the reins of power.

Mostly Sunni insurgents have been waging a campaign of terror against Iraqis working with the U.S.-led military forces and are believed to be responsible for an early morning ambush Saturday of an elite Interior Ministry squad known as the Wolf Brigade.

Gunmen opened fire on more than a dozen cars carrying the agents as they passed near Baiji, 125 miles north of Baghdad on the road to Mosul. Three brigade members were reported killed.

Sunnis, meanwhile, are blaming the Shiites and government security units such as the Wolf Brigade for a series of slayings of Sunni clerics.

Jabr on Saturday denied that his police or security forces were responsible for the killings.

Some Sunni analysts hailed the meeting Saturday as a sign of willingness to engage with other Iraqis.

“Sunnis are united but they have differences of opinion, with some saying we can’t get involved in the political process until there is a schedule for U.S. troops to withdraw,” said Sheik Hashim Ithawa of the Islamic Iraqi Party.

Hashim urged fellow Sunnis to take part in future elections and a planned referendum on a new constitution that is to be drafted in coming months. He said he hoped Sunnis would no longer “give others the opportunity to marginalize us.”

Meanwhile, a tribal leader from Madaen told the gathering that if security conditions didn’t improve in his region, “we will raise arms and nothing will stand in the way of jihad.”

Fakhri Qaisi, deputy secretary of the extremist Religious Guidance Organization, told Iraqi TV that he and other prominent Sunni leaders had skipped the meeting because they feared it would only “make sectarianism deeper.”

During the meeting, at least one delegate was shouted down as a traitor.

The meeting was organized by the Muslim Scholars Assn., the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Sunni Waqf endowment. Leaders hoped it would help improve Sunni representation in the National Assembly and Cabinet after a new election scheduled for December.

Sunni leaders have yet to give a name to their consolidation effort but said they would soon open an office in Baghdad and branches across the country.

An increase in violence, some sectarian, over the last month has led to more than 520 killings and raised fears of civil war.

During his second visit here in a month, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick on Thursday urged religious leaders to rein in militants and present a united front.

Western diplomats hailed the Sunni effort at unifying as an encouraging sign.

“They’ve peered over the edge and seen something from which they are now pulling back,” a U.S. official said.

At a news conference to discuss stalled post-invasion rebuilding efforts, the head of the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office blamed insurgents for causing conditions that slowed progress and increased security costs.

As much as 16% of project funds are being devoted to protecting sites and workers on oil lines, roads, electrical plants and other infrastructure, said reconstruction chief Bill Taylor.

An aide to Taylor said 295 contractors had been killed on U.S. projects alone.

Saturday was a day of relative calm compared to the spate of bombings in the last month. The Interior Ministry reported one car bomb just north of Baghdad, a blast that missed its target, a U.S. military convoy, but injured an Iraqi civilian.

Three mortar rounds struck an Iraqi police commando unit in the Baghdad neighborhood of Saidiya at 9 p.m., injuring six civilians, and a roadside bomb in Samarra killed an Iraqi policeman.


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