With sectarian violence reaching new extremes, some Sunni Muslim clerics are breaking with the most militant factions in their sect and reaching out to Shiite clergy in an effort to pull Iraq back from the abyss.
Some members of the Muslim Scholars Assn., which has acted as a broker between Western officials and members of the country's Sunni-driven insurgency, worry that their group has done little more than clasp hands before television cameras with their Shiite counterparts and issue joint appeals for calm.
"The Muslim Scholars Assn. so far has not participated in any real, effective negotiations," said Sheik Mahmoud Sumaidaie, a senior member who preaches at the organization's Baghdad headquarters, the Umm Qura Mosque.
Sumaidaie said more than 70 clerics across Iraq want to form a new religious council that can unite all Sunni factions and open a channel of communication with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the country's most revered Shiite cleric. Without it, he said, "we will never be able to stop the bloodshed in Iraq."
Some top Sunni leaders are resisting the idea because they fear being marginalized, Sumaidaie said, accusing them of running the association like a dictatorship. But he predicted that the council would be officially founded within weeks.
Iraq's religious leaders represent some of the last vestiges of authority at a time of growing disaffection with politicians, who are widely seen as corrupt and ineffective. If Sunni clerics can unite in a council that is willing to compromise with Shiites, it could offer some hope of a solution to the carnage.
There is political and religious backing for the venture among the beleaguered Sunni minority -- which dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein -- particularly those who live in Shiite-dominated parts of the country. However, Sunnis are fragmented and some association members privately dismissed the effort as futile.
In defiance of national leaders, Sunni clerics representing the association in Basra, Nasiriya, Amarah and Samawah issued religious edicts Wednesday banning the killing of all Iraqis, supporting reconstruction of a revered Shiite shrine and disavowing "any terrorist organization targeting the innocent blood of our people."
The February bombing of the golden-domed Shiite shrine in Samarra unleashed a frenzy of killing.
Deaths squads, some of them operating under the cover of the country's Shiite-dominated security forces, prowl Baghdad, snatching victims from their homes, offices and cars. Neighborhoods trade rocket and mortar fire and bombs rip through bustling, sand-colored streets.
Last week, at least 215 people were killed in a series of car bombings in a Shiite slum of Baghdad, stronghold of the powerful Al Mahdi militia loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr. The massive assault prompted days of reprisal attacks against Sunni neighborhoods.
Sadr demanded that Harith Dhari, the leader of the Muslim Scholars Assn. who is wanted on charges of inciting terrorism, issue edicts forbidding the killing of Shiites, banning participation in the group Al Qaeda in Iraq and supporting reconstruction of the Samarra shrine.
Dhari said he had already repeatedly denounced the killing of any Muslim and did not see the need to do so again. "Why is Sadr saying it now? Is he trying to provoke a problem?" Dhari asked The Times in a rare interview with a Western newspaper this week in neighboring Jordan.
He sidestepped the question of whether he is prepared to denounce Al Qaeda in Iraq, which is blamed for some of the deadliest attacks against the Shiite-led government and civilians.
"Al Qaeda is part of the resistance, but the resistance is of two kinds," he said, surrounded by tribal elders at a residence in Amman, the Jordanian capital. "The resistance that only resists occupation, this we support 100%. And the resistance that mixes up resisting the occupation and killing innocents ... this, even if it calls itself resistance, we condemn."
Other clerics, particularly those living in areas dominated by Iraq's Shiite majority, see a pressing need for compromise. The tiny Sunni community in southern Iraq has been in disarray since the mufti of Basra, Yousuf Hassan, was assassinated in June, leaders said Wednesday.
Many Sunni clerics have fled the country. Those who remain said they wanted to signal a break with more radical leaders in Baghdad and Sunni-dominated Al Anbar province, heartland of the insurgency.
"We thought that what Muqtada Sadr set as conditions are not impossible," said Abdalfatah Abdalrazaq, a Basra imam. "All of them are aimed at preventing bloodshed."
After consulting local political and tribal leaders, the southern branch went ahead and issued its fatwa, or edict, including a specific ban on killing Shiites, language others have so far avoided.
"We did this to please God and our conscience," Abdalrazaq said. "We hope that we will be able to apply this fatwa to the reality on the ground, as it gives us a chance to live side by side with our brother, the Shiites, in the south."
Sadr's representatives in Basra welcomed the move.
"We think the Sunnis in the south are different in nature from the Sunnis in other regions," said Khalil Maliki, of Sadr's office. "Such a frank fatwa at this specific time will calm down all the violence in the south."
Sumaidaie, the Baghdad cleric, said support for a more moderate approach extended across Iraq, though he refused to supply names, citing concern for members' safety.
He said that the Muslim Scholars Assn. had become too closely identified with the insurgency and that he had been working for three months to help form a new, strictly religious body that he hoped could unify all Sunnis in Iraq.
Mohammed Saidi, spokesman for the association, declined to comment. But one official said privately that there had been at least four previous attempts to do the same thing.
Special correspondent Ranya Kadri in Amman and special correspondents in Baghdad and Basra contributed to this report.