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Battle Near, Iraqi Sunnis Make Offer

Major Shift Includes New Interest in Vote

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, November 6, 2004; Page A01

BAGHDAD, Nov. 5 -- As Marines step up preparations for military offensives on two major Iraqi cities, a number of Sunni Muslim leaders are forwarding a plan to establish the rule of law in those areas through peaceful means, with the promise of reducing the insurgency across a large swath of the country.

Some of the groups leading the bid have encouraged violent resistance in central, western and northern Iraq. The groups say they will withdraw their support for violence if Iraq's interim government can reassure Sunni leaders wary of national elections, which are scheduled for the end of January.

Sunni Muslims listen to a sermon during Friday prayers telling them to participate in upcoming elections. Many Sunni religious leaders had previously insisted that legitimate elections could not be held until the U.S. occupation ended. (Khalid Mohammed -- AP)

The Sunnis have proposed six measures, including a demand that U.S. forces remain confined to bases in the month before balloting. Such an ambitious demand, which some advocates acknowledge is not likely to be met and may be open to negotiation, represents a dramatic shift by Sunni groups opposed to the U.S. operation in Iraq.

Until now, groups such as the Association of Muslim Scholars, which supports the new proposal, had insisted that no election could be considered legitimate until Western troops left Iraq. The association has repeatedly threatened to call for an election boycott through the loudspeakers of Iraq's Sunni mosques, which the association represents.

"We took an initiative regarding the elections. It is being welcomed by the people on the boycott side," said Wamidh Nadhmi, a Baghdad University political science professor who is spokesman for the initiative. "They said that if such agreements could be met by the Americans, they could change to participation."

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad offered no reaction to the proposal, which it received this week. A Western diplomat emphasized that any decision lay with Iraq's interim government.

In separate interviews, senior U.S. and Iraqi officials were privately skeptical of the overture and indicated it was unlikely to avert a military offensive on Fallujah and Ramadi, which commanders say could begin at any time.

"They don't seem to get it. The monopoly of power is over," said a senior Iraqi government official, referring to former President Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government. "One wonders how representative these elements are of the mainstream Sunni population. They may represent nostalgia for the past, but for sure no realistic vision for the future."

Some former officials with experience in Iraq called the Sunni proposal a potential breakthrough that could avert not only an assault on Fallujah but also a violent aftermath, when insurgents might take the fight elsewhere.

"Most of what we've learned about insurgencies is that you don't defeat one through purely military means," said Larry Diamond, who served in the U.S.-led occupation authority. "When you try to do that, you may win the battle but lose the war. The insurgency in the Sunni heartland is now quite broad-based, and I don't think we're going to defeat the insurgency in this part of the country through purely military means. I think we're looking at a protracted insurgency which will get worse if we go through with elections" that many Sunnis boycott.

"These groups," Diamond said, "have to be given evidence that it's in their interests to participate in the electoral process."

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, in a letter to President Bush disclosed Friday, warned that an assault on Fallujah "would be very disruptive of Iraq's political transition."

"Persuading elements who are currently alienated from, or skeptical about, the transition process to compete politically is key to creating a political and security context that will inspire confidence among all Iraqis," Annan wrote.

Iraqi and American officials also cite the impending election as a reason to take military action. Fallujah has been controlled by insurgents since April. They also move freely in Ramadi, the provincial capital, 30 miles to the west. In most of the rest of the country, voter registration began this week, and officials say the legitimacy of an ostensibly nationwide ballot will be undermined if residents of the Sunni Triangle area cannot take part.

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