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Shiites in Iraq Laud End of Sunni Boycott
Radical Cleric Steps in As Unlikely Mediator

By Ellen Knickmeyer and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 23, 2005

BAGHDAD, May 22 -- Iraq's new Shiite-dominated government on Sunday welcomed the end of a Sunni Arab boycott of politics, encouraging a newly formed Sunni bloc to distance itself from insurgent attacks against civilians and security forces.

The radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, meanwhile, took up the unlikely role of mediator between Shiite and Sunni factions, circulating a message that called for all sides to renounce the killing of all Iraqis, a Sunni official said.

The overtures by opponents of the new Iraqi government emerged as violence in Iraq has increasingly involved blood-for-blood attacks on Sunni and Shiite clerics.

An influential Sunni group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, has blamed Shiite-led security forces for the killings of Sunni preachers, saying on its Web site Sunday that one cleric was tortured with an electric drill before he was killed.

On Saturday, more than 1,000 Sunnis from the association and other groups, joined by other Sunni religious and tribal leaders, said they wanted to help write Iraq's new constitution and compete in elections. The announcement broke a de facto political boycott by most Sunnis that had held since U.S.-led forces routed former president Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-led government in April 2003.

Iraq's new leaders, and their U.S. backers, have said that drawing the disaffected Sunni minority into the democratic process was essential to ending the Sunni-led insurgency. More than 400 Iraqis have been killed in bombings and shootings in the weeks since Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari, a Shiite, took office last month. Speaking to reporters Sunday in Baghdad, Jafari's spokesman, Laith Kubba, said Sunni political participation would help end the violence.

"The call of Sunnis for participation is the biggest factor in stopping the violence because the mixture of political demands and violence is wrong," Kubba said. "The Sunnis are asked to show where they stand, away from the killing and violence committed against Iraqi civilians and security forces."

Kubba did not mention attacks on U.S. security forces. A statement from the Sunni bloc Saturday said resistance against "occupiers" was lawful but should be exercised by legal means.

Sadr's aides, meanwhile, met with the Association of Muslim Scholars and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite political party. They carried a pledge that said "we forbid the bloodshed of any Iraqi," said Abdul Salam Kubaisi, a member of the Association of Muslim Scholars.

"All Iraq's groups and factions should sign this charter," Kubaisi said. "We think that if all agree upon it, the problem will be ended."

There was no word late Sunday of the Shiite group's response to the overture.

Although Sadr is a Shiite, he sympathizes with some Sunnis in opposition to the new government and the U.S. military forces that support it.

Sadr went into hiding last year after leading uprisings against U.S. forces, but resurfaced recently.

"Iraq needs to stand side-by-side for the time being," Sadr said on al-Arabiya television in an interview aired Sunday, explaining his overtures last week. He referred to growing fears that Iraq was moving toward full-scale war as violence increases between the Shiites and Sunnis.

[A U.S. soldier was killed Sunday when a car bomb exploded near a patrol just north of Tikrit, the Reuters news agency reported that the U.S. military announced on Monday.]

Also Sunday, a U.S. military spokesman, Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, said that officials believe that photos showing Hussein in U.S. detention were taken last year between January and April. A U.S. investigation into who leaked the photos to British and U.S. tabloids was focusing "for the most part on U.S. forces or U.S. personnel," Boylan said.

Iraq's new interior minister, Bayan Jabr, said Saturday that "I don't think that Americans took these photos," but refused to say who he thought may have. The U.S. military said that the release of the photos, one of which showed Hussein in his underwear, may have violated the Geneva Conventions, which outline international law on the treatment of prisoners of war. The conventions bar subjecting them to public display or humiliation.

Also Sunday, three kidnapped Romanian journalists and their Iraqi American guide were released after nearly two months in captivity, Romanian officials said, according to news agencies.

Meanwhile, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched an offensive late Sunday against insurgents operating near the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad.

Special correspondent Naseer Nouri contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company