By Ellen Knickmeyer and Naseer Nouri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 22, 2005
BAGHDAD, May 21 -- More than 1,000 Sunni Arab clerics, political leaders and tribal heads ended their two-year boycott of politics in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq on Saturday, uniting in a Sunni bloc that they said would help draft the country's new constitution and compete in elections.
Formation of the group comes during escalating violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that has raised the threat of sectarian war. The bloc represents moderate and hard-line members of the Association of Muslim Scholars, the Iraqi Islamic Party and other main groups of the disgruntled Sunni minority toppled from dominance when U.S.-led troops routed Hussein in April 2003.
Sunnis have remained on the sidelines of the Iraqi government since then. Most Sunnis boycotted national elections in January that put the long-suppressed Shiite majority in charge. Meanwhile, a Sunni-led insurgency appears to have become increasingly unpopular among ordinary Iraqis as the death toll from bombings and other attacks climbs.
"The country needs Sunnis to join politics," Adnand Dulaimi, a government-appointed overseer of Sunni religious sites and a leader of the drive to draw Sunnis into the rebuilding of Iraq, declared at the conference Saturday where the bloc was assembled. "The Sunnis are now ready to participate."
"The last elections brought a major turnaround in the political representation of Sunnis,'' Dulaimi said. "We think it's time to take steps to save Iraq's identity, and its unity and independence. . . . Iraq is for all, and Iraq is not sectarian.''
"I call on Sunnis to unite their voices and get ready to take part in the next election,'' said Ahmed Abdul Ghafur Samarrai, a moderate in the Association of Muslim Scholars, the most vocal Sunni opposition group.
U.S. officials and leaders of the new Iraqi government have said that including Sunnis in the political process is essential to ending the insurgency.
Bombings, shootings and other violence have killed more than 400 people since Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite, began announcing members of his cabinet in late April.
Sunnis attending the conference, held at a nondescript hall, condemned the bloodshed -- particularly the surge of tit-for-tat shootings this month targeting Shiite and Sunni clerics and their aides.
In a statement adopted at the meeting, the Sunni leaders called for "liberating'' Iraq from U.S.-led forces "by all legal means.'' The statement condemned "all terrorist acts that target civilians, no matter the reason,'' but said, "resisting the occupier is a legitimate right.''
Speakers accused the Shiite-dominated security forces of raiding mosques, killings and committing other violence against the Sunni minority.
"I swear to God, if the government or someone does not take care of this and solve our problem, then we will all fight them. No one will stop us, and no one will blame us,'' Lateef Migual Dulaymi, a tribal leader from the southeast, told delegates as he detailed allegations of harassment, drawing cries of approval.
Because of the boycott of the January elections, only 17 Sunnis have seats in the 275-seat national assembly.
"That is the problem that Sunnis face now,'' said Tariq Hashimi, secretary general of the Iraqi Islamic Party. "We are not represented in the assembly. How can we participate in writing a constitution?''
The new government is charged with writing a constitution by Aug. 15. A national vote on the constitution would follow, leading to the election of a new, full-term government.
Only one of the 55 members of the committee charged with drafting the constitution is Sunni. Samarrai said assembly authorities had agreed to add more Sunnis to the process and had asked Sunni leaders to recommend 10 or more nominees.
Broad Sunni participation in the next elections will be conditional on a constitution that guarantees the rights of all Iraqis, Samarrai and other Sunni officials said. If the constitution is satisfactory, "We'll not miss the chance again. We'll not make the same mistake'' of sitting out elections, Samarrai said.
Emotions at the conference peaked when speakers called for the resignation of Iraq's interior minister, Bayan Jabr, a Shiite, as head of the police forces.
In a news conference later, Jabr rejected the call for his resignation. "No one has the right to fire, or force to resign, except the National Assembly,'' he said. "Those who have no voice should not demand to be listened to.''
A U.S. official in Baghdad said Jabr's appointment and the recent killings of clerics may have prodded Sunnis to participate in the political process.
"My sense is they have peered over the edge, and decided that's really not where they want to go,'' the official said on condition of anonymity, referring to growing sectarian tensions.
No single step will end the insurgency, the official said. "I do not believe it is going to happen in a big bang,'' he told reporters.
Conference organizers said former Iraqi military officers also attended. Hussein-era military officers are believed to be among the leaders of homegrown resistance to the U.S. military presence and to the Iraqi government it supports.
In addition to Sunnis, foreign fighters including Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian, have played a lethal role in the insurgency. A statement attributed to Zarqawi that was released on the Internet last week defended killing innocent Muslims in the interest of harming Americans and Shiites.
Hareth Dhari, a senior member of the Association of Muslim Scholars and a proponent of the Sunni election boycott, did not attend the conference, but his son was present.
A representative of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the two Shiite political parties leading the country, also attended the conference.
Another influential Shiite leader, the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr, said in an interview on al-Arabiya television that he was responsible for pushing the Sunni leaders into action, with approval from Shiite leaders.
"I tried to end the strife,'' Sadr said in rare public comments since leading an armed revolt against U.S. troops last year. "They both agreed, and both are willing to take the advice and avoid disagreement, because Iraq needs unity now.''
The National Dialogue Council, a Sunni group that took a lead role in negotiating Sunni posts in the new Shiite-led cabinet, also did not send a representative to the conference.
Delegates at the conference prevented a representative of a Sunni who has joined the governing Shiite-led coalition from speaking at the meeting. "No to those who sold out Sunnis,'' delegates shouted, then chanting, "Allahu Akbar,'' or "God is Great" until the man stopped speaking and stepped back from the podium.
Separately Saturday, the U.S. official accused Syria of harboring supporters of the insurgency in Iraq.
"There are people inside Syria, known to the Syrian government, who are encouraging acts'' in the insurgency, he said. "The Syrian government knows what it needs to do.''
A U.S. offensive this month in western Iraq involving more than 1,000 Marines targeted foreign fighters believed to have infiltrated the country from Syria. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other officials have expressed concern about Syrian influence in Iraq.
Sunnis, Americans and others have also expressed concern about Iranian influence in the new Iraq. The official who spoke Saturday, however, had less harsh words for Iraq's eastern neighbor.
"I think Iraq needs good relations with Iran," the official said. "Iraq does not need another foreign war. Over time, Iraq's economy would benefit -- they have a self-interest in having good relations with Iran."
Special correspondents Omar Fekeiki and Khalid Saffar contributed to this report.