Sunnis form alliance in Iraq, seeking a say in government

Posted in Iraq | 23-May-05 | Author: Sabrina Tavernise and Richard | Source: International Herald Tribune

Iraqi Sunni men attend a meeting of Sunni groups in Baghdad May 21, 2005.
BAGHDAD In a stark reversal from earlier this year, when Sunni Arabs boycotted national elections here, a broad gathering of Sunni sheiks, clerics and political leaders formed a political alliance, seeking to win back the political ground they lost to Shiites.

The meeting Saturday was the first wide-scale effort by Iraq's embittered and increasingly isolated Sunnis to band together politically, and was broadly attended by what organizers said were about 2,000 Sunni Arabs from Baghdad and nearby cities.

The gathering was an implicit acknowledgment that it had been a mistake to turn away from the political process and allow Shiites to control the government for the first time in modern Iraqi history.

"Lots of Sunni Arabs feel that they made a mistake by boycotting Iraq's election," Adnan Pachachi, a prominent Sunni whose representative attended the conference, said in a telephone interview from London. "They are really concerned about having a real participation in the writing of the constitution, not as advisers but as equal partners."

In speech after speech at the meeting, held at a Baghdad social club, delegates called on fellow Sunnis to cast aside past doubts and throw themselves into politics to try to weigh in on the writing of a constitution, which is already under way in a Shiite-controlled committee in the National Assembly. Even the Association of Muslim Scholars, a leading voice in the Sunni election boycott, signed on as one of the conference's organizers.

"We are passing through a very hard time, and we decided that all Sunnis should gather and rebuild our own house," said Tarik al-Hashimy, leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the conference organizers. "We're trying to build a concrete coalition for the next election."

Conference organizers said in interviews that they would set up an office to coordinate political work with Sunni Arabs. They also appeared to have backed away from previous demands, including that the U.S. military leave Iraq as a condition for Sunni participation in any elections. The Muslim Scholars, however, continued to press that demand, but said it would not stand in the way of those who wanted to vote.

A crucial question is whether the Sunnis will be able to put aside their differences and work together. Sunnis are a fractured group and are not united around one single religious leader, as the Shiites are around Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Zaineb Obeid contributed reporting.

Al-Sadr tries to quell tension

Aides to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr met Sunday with a key Sunni group in a bid to soothe sectarian tensions that have flared since the new Shiite-dominated government was announced April 28, The Associated Press reported from Baghdad.

In a television interview, Sadr tried to dampen fears that extremists within Iraq's Shiite and Sunni communities were pushing the country toward civil war. "Iraq needs to stand side by side for the time being," Sadr told Al Arabiya in the interview Sunday.

Sadr resurfaced this week after lying low following fierce battles last year in the southern holy city of Najaf and Baghdad's impoverished Sadr City between his supporters and U.S. forces.

At least 550 people, including 10 clerics, some Shiite and some Sunni, have been killed since the new government was announced. "There is a wound that needs to be treated and Moqtada was the first to offer his medicine," said Sheik Abdul Salam al-Kubaisi, a spokesman for the Sunni group, the Association of Muslim Scholars.