BAGHDAD, Feb. 2 -- Leading Sunni Muslim clerics who boycotted Sunday's elections said Wednesday that they would "respect the choice of those who voted" and work with a new government, even though they considered the election invalid.
The statement, issued by the Association of Muslim Scholars, contained renewed criticism of the election but appeared to suggest that the influential Sunni group wants to be included in forming a new government. Ballots from Sunday's vote, which are still being counted, are widely expected to show light turnout in Sunni-populated areas and result in correspondingly low Sunni representation in Iraq's new National Assembly.
Mohammed Bashar Faidhi, left, of the Association of Muslim Scholars, talks to reporters in Baghdad. The Sunni group plans to work with the new government.
(Ali Jasim -- Reuters)
Many of Iraq's major political groups, however, have said assembly seats should be apportioned to give Sunnis an equitable share of power, saying they would put rivalries aside for the sake of national stability.
Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi gathered the heads of 16 parties in his office Wednesday to begin working on a plan to achieve a balance among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in the next government. "All parts and all sectors of Iraqi society should be involved," said a statement issued by Allawi's office after the meeting. "All agreed that every effort would be made to broaden the national dialogue and build national unity."
Allawi, a Shiite who ran Sunday as part of a secular list that is likely to be the second- or third-largest group in the assembly, may not head the next government. Abdul Aziz Hakim, the head of a major Shiite-backed slate that was expected to win the most assembly seats, told the Associated Press that the next prime minister should come from one of the parties on his list.
Shiites make up an estimated 60 percent of Iraq's population but were oppressed by Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government. Sunni Arabs make up about 20 percent.
The Sunni clerics said in their statement that they would "consider the new government . . . as a transitional government with limited powers." The parliament that is to be formed already is deemed transitional, tasked to write a constitution and hold another election in December.
The clerics' withdrawal from the election had threatened to undermine the legitimacy of the vote. Their decision, and threats aimed at Sunnis by opponents to the ballot, sharply dampened turnout in some Sunni areas.
A Western diplomat estimated "anecdotally" that turnout was less than 50 percent in all Sunni areas. Shiites and Kurds, by contrast, went to the polls in large numbers. The Iraqi election commission, tabulating ballots from more than 5,000 polling centers, has said it will be a week or longer before complete results and the turnout are announced.
The clerics said the expected low Sunni turnout confirmed their position that the election, held while foreign troops were in Iraq, was illegitimate. "We make it clear to the United Nations and the international community that they should not get involved in granting this election legitimacy, because such a move will open the gates of evil," the statement said.
But the Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Sunni leaders apparently realize they should participate in the new government. "I think there is a recognition up and down the Sunni community . . . that there is a political process going forward, including the drafting of the constitution," the diplomat said.
Meanwhile, a statement purportedly made by Osama bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, said holy war, not "rigged elections," was the only path for reform in Islamic nations, the Associated Press reported. The written statement, said to have been the transcript of a speech by Zawahiri, appeared on several Internet sites Tuesday.
Baghdad and much of Iraq remained relatively quiet Wednesday, and Iraqis debated whether the lull in violence was temporary.
The Reuters news agency said seven Iraqis were killed Wednesday in three roadside bombings in the northern city of Samarra. The AP reported that insurgents blew up an oil pipeline near that city and that four civilians were killed in a drive-by shooting in Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad.
[On Thursday, in the deadliest attack since the elections, gunmen ambushed Iraqi security forces in northern Iraq, about 40 miles southwest of Kirkuk, killing 12 soldiers, the AP reported.]
Correspondent Anthony Shadid contributed to this report.