Iraq's Sunnis turn toward the ballot

Abu Mujahid brags that he bombed a U.S. Army Humvee and wounded two American soldiers just last month. Now he's stumping for Sunni candidates and talking matter-of-factly about the importance of safety as Iraqis head to the polls today.

"This is something like a truce so the elections will be implemented in a secure environment," said Abu Mujahid, an active member of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, an armed Sunni Arab group. "We want to allow people to vote and let them decide without pressure from any groups."

With one foot in the political process and the other firmly rooted in violence, fighters such as Abu Mujahid offer a glimpse of the Sunni community's evolution over the last five years: from waging guerrilla war against Iraq's ascendant Shiite Muslim majority and its U.S. backers, to tentatively embracing electoral politics.

Abu Mujahid's ambivalence illustrates how the decision to buy in to Iraq's fragile democracy is hardly irreversible -- that the gun is still seen as a viable tool for effecting change.

"When U.S. forces leave and these guys feel they have made no headway via elections and U.S. attempts at strong-arming [Shiite political leaders], they may well revert to violence," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group. "For them, it's all about the identity and future of Iraq and their role in it; they will not accept being cut out."

The attitudes vary from province to province, but the general outlook of armed Sunni groups represents a sea change from local and national elections in January 2005, when insurgents threatened their communities with death if they voted. In Baghdad, former insurgents have signed on to slates with established Sunni parties. In places such as Baqubah and Samarra, once synonymous with the Sunni revolt, armed groups have endorsed candidates.

Shiite politicians, alarmed by the participation of Sunni armed groups, worry that militants want to win jobs inside the government so they can destroy the country's new order.

"Unfortunately . . . we find many figures who are suspected of or accused of sectarian killings," parliament member Taha Dira Dahan said. The Shiite lawmaker warned that these candidates stopped killing and displacing Shiite families only when the Iraqi government grew strong. He put the number of suspicious candidates here in Diyala province at 20.

"Today they are participating in the elections in order to reach the positions of power in the province," Dahan said. "This, surely, forms a big threat for the area's security and stability."

Abu Mujahid, who wouldn't give his real name because of his own security fears, wears a denim jacket and khaki pants, and styles his hair with gel into a mini-pompadour. Cleanshaven, he stands outside the office of the group he favors, the National Development and Rehabilitation Party.

Several windows were missing in the building, which had been bombed a few days earlier. The blood of a party member killed in the blast had been mopped up. The villa's walls were papered with posters of a raised fist and beefy, mustachioed men. Nearby buildings were pockmarked with bullets.

On Thursday, three Sunni candidates were killed in Iraq, including one in Diyala from the party Abu Mujahid supports.

"We suffered the last four years in this province. There were sectarian elements who wished to run this governorate," Abu Mujahid said, referring to Shiite factions in the provincial council and police.

Now Abu Mujahid, who will serve as an election monitor today, and his fellow fighters desperately want to change the equation, to correct their fateful decision to boycott the earlier elections that stripped them of their voice.

After that vote, they pressed on with violence, fighting alongside groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq in hopes of toppling the new U.S.-imposed order. In turn, newly empowered Shiite security forces and militias tried to crush the fighters. Sunni militants terrorized the population with car bombs and assassinations, while police and army units often provided cover for Shiite militias.

Baqubah and the rest of the country fell into civil war. Anarchy reigned as tens of thousands were displaced and militants regularly executed civilians who weren't part of their sect.

The bloodshed dropped only after Sunni insurgents turned on the most extreme elements from Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007. Some Sunni fighters teamed up with the American military and joined the U.S.-funded Sons of Iraq paramilitary force. A smaller number, including Abu Mujahid, battled Al Qaeda in Iraq but refused to deal with the U.S. military and, in fact, kept fighting it.

Abu Mujahid, who said he took up a gun when he "discovered the Americans were not liberators but occupiers," says he has carried out more than 200 attacks in the last five years and lost 70 friends in combat.

"If there are decent people who win these elections, there is no reason to go back to violence," he said. "These elections are the sole way to succeed without violence."

With that in mind, Abu Mujahid and fellow members of the 1920 Revolution Brigades meet voters at schools, cafes and shops. They don't hide the fact that they represent what they call "the honorable resistance."

"I give seminars . . . and tell people, 'Your voice is significant,' " he said.

Inside the National Development and Rehabilitation Party headquarters, a steady stream of gray-haired former Iraqi army generals in three-piece suits passes through.

Daham Azzawi, head of the party in Diyala, dresses smartly in a matching navy V-neck sweater and blazer. He hands out pens as gifts and watches his guests puffing away on cigarettes. Azzawi, a media professor at Diyala University, doesn't hide the fact that his group counts among its members veterans of armed groups.

"We are open to everyone, [including] those who were in the armed resistance," he said, "as long as they follow our instructions and principle of being part of the peaceful resistance for the moment."

Azzawi, with soft black eyes and a sly smile, defends the right to violence. "If people haven't received their rights, they will fight back. This is a normal reaction," he said. "If the election is fair and transparent, things will improve. If not, it will deteriorate to what it was before."

In May, he said, the Americans raided his party's first meeting and arrested all seven participants, believing it was a terrorist gathering. Azzawi said he spent a week in jail. Over the summer, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army and police arrested more than 100 members of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni grouping, as well as many Sons of Iraq fighters. A Sunni paramilitary leader died in police custody in December.

Despite the sectarian tensions, insurgents are getting involved in the political process. An insurgent commander in Samarra described how armed groups -- the 1920 Revolution Brigades and others -- had banned attacks on U.S. soldiers in his city during the current election period. The groups also nominated eight candidates on various slates to run for office.

"We are now trying to establish our bases and the route to taking control of the situation officially and openly," the commander said, speaking on condition of anonymity, citing security concerns. "We started by distancing ourselves from the Qaeda organization which ruined our reputation. Now we seek the national unity in order to protect our elements from being arrested and tortured or other issues that will hinder us from taking part in the political process."

As the insurgent groups inch toward the mainstream, he worries about squandering the blood of those who died fighting the Americans and the so-called Iranian agents in the Iraqi government.

"Our resistance will never end, because it's part of our creed and religious values," the commander said. "But we do seek the most appropriate way of resisting, the one that will benefit our city and people."

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ned.parker@latimes.com

Times staff writer Caesar Ahmed and a special correspondent in Diyala contributed to this report.

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