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In Politics, Sunnis Speak With Many Voices
Leadership Appears To Be Fragmented

By Andy Mosher and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 12, 2005

BAGHDAD, June 11 -- At a meeting Thursday between Sunni Arab political leaders and members of the committee writing Iraq's permanent constitution, an argument broke out among the Sunni delegates, several people who were present said.

Adnan Dulaimi, head of the government agency responsible for Sunni affairs, submitted a list of Sunni candidates to join the 55-member committee, which has just two Sunnis on it. But Dulaimi did not consult with his fellow Sunni leaders first.

The Sunnis at the table began to curse each other, said Ali Dabbagh, a Shiite who sits on the committee and was at the meeting. "The problem is the absence of a united Sunni leadership," he said.

Saleh Mutlak, a Sunni leader involved in the discussions, said Dulaimi "made a mistake when he submitted the names without asking the other groups involved, so many members were annoyed with him. The names he put were not bad, but we object to the principle that he submitted it by himself without consultation."

The episode, which both men described in interviews, illustrates one of the Sunni Arabs' main obstacles as they reenter Iraqi politics after two years of self-imposed exile.

In January, leading Sunni groups boycotted the country's parliamentary elections, leaving them with few seats in the new National Assembly. But late last month, a broad spectrum of Sunni political and religious leaders announced the formation of a unified bloc to participate in writing Iraq's constitution.

Today, with just over two months remaining to complete a constitutional draft, the Sunnis have made little apparent progress.

A stalemate has emerged over how many Sunnis to add to the constitution committee and which candidates to consider. The Shiite Muslim alliance that holds a majority in the National Assembly has 28 of the constitutional committee's 55 seats. After lengthy negotiations, committee leaders offered a compromise that would effectively create a larger panel to write the constitution and give the Sunnis 13 additional slots. But the Sunnis want 25 spots.

U.S. and Iraqi officials have said the participation of the Sunni Arabs -- a minority that nevertheless dominated the Iraqi leadership for decades, particularly under former president Saddam Hussein -- would undermine the country's insurgency. Sunni Arabs, many of them jobless men who served in Hussein's army until it was disbanded two years ago, have embraced the insurgency as a way to fight what they say would be domination by the Shiite majority.

The officials also maintain that Sunni Arab participation is essential for producing a constitution that can pass a nationwide referendum slated for October. But with the drafting process already underway, concern is mounting that even if more Sunnis are added, the committee still might miss its Aug. 15 deadline for producing a draft -- or meet the deadline but produce a document that voters will reject. Under existing laws, the committee could extend the process by six months, but that would also delay the referendum and an election of a permanent government scheduled for December.

Part of the problem, some committee members say, is that the Sunnis have failed to coalesce around a single leader or group, a charge some Sunni leaders seem to accept.

"The political process is a new concept to many Sunni groups. At the beginning, we didn't agree on the idea of having one voice or bloc," said Naseer Ani, who heads the Iraqi Islamic Party's political office. "Thus, including all the Sunnis in one bloc is not easy. There are disagreements among the Sunnis, but they are being solved gradually. Many Sunnis still hesitate to join the political process."

"We don't want to interfere and decide who represents the Sunnis the most. This will create problems to the other side," said Dabbagh, the Shiite committee member. "At the very beginning, we told them that we need them to agree over who represents them and tell us."

The fragmentation of Sunni leadership stems in large part from the fall of Hussein, who built a cult of personality while rigorously crushing any perceived rivals during his 24 years in power. When the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 toppled Hussein, Iraqi politics changed drastically. While the once-dominant Sunni Arabs found themselves leaderless and out of power, the long-oppressed Shiites organized quickly, turning to the established religious leaders found in Shiite Islam but not among Sunnis.

Finally embracing Iraq's political process after two tumultuous years, the Sunni Arabs are nevertheless represented in negotiations by several organizations, including the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni political party; the National Dialogue Council, a coalition of prominent Sunnis from across the country; and Dulaimi's Gathering of the Sunni People, the bloc formed in May by political and religious leaders.

And as Sunnis are encouraged to abandon the insurgency in favor of politics, controversy has swirled around the question of which Sunnis belong in which camp. Ani said the emergence of Sunni leaders has been hampered by raids on the offices and homes of many who have come forward to cooperate with the government.

In the highest-profile incident, Mohsen Abdul Hamid, head of the Iraqi Islamic Party, was arrested in his home by U.S. troops, along with several family members and guards. Hours later, the Americans released him and apologized. In addition, the Dialogue Council's offices have been stormed by soldiers at least three times since early May, and several of its members have been detained.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari has blamed such incidents on people who provide false information to U.S. or Iraqi security forces in an attempt to undermine cooperation with Sunnis. But many Sunni leaders remain unconvinced that the Shiite-led government is sincere in its stated desire to include them in the political process.

"If they see the raids and arrests, which affect only the Sunnis, how can they be convinced and encouraged to join the political process?" Ani asked. "That's why the government is blamed for the hesitation of the Sunnis."

The constitution committee's acrimonious meeting on Thursday night ended, as many before it, with major issues unresolved. So on a hot, dusty Saturday, leaders of the Dialogue Council and the Association of Islamic Scholars and several smaller groups bused north from Baghdad to Baqubah, a key city in Iraq's volatile Sunni Triangle.

In a meeting hall packed with 500 people, the politicians tried to sell local people both on the constitutional process and the need for Sunnis to participate in it. During three hours punctuated by poetry, chants and a free lunch, Mutlak and others exhorted Sunnis to put aside sectarian divisions, choose the best possible leaders regardless of religion and push for inclusion. If a good constitution emerges, he said, they should support it; if not, they should pull together to block it.

"We have to unite ourselves to say no and get ready for the next election if the constitution does not satisfy us. We have to unite three neighboring provinces to go for the veto against it," Mutlak said. "But we hope that a constitution will come out that we can vote yes for."

Special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baqubah and correspondent Jonathan Finer in Baghdad contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company