Iraq's Sunni candidates attacked on all sidesBAGHDAD The car swerved in front of Sheik Ayad al-Izzi's sedan as he was crossing a bridge, on the way back to the capital after he had delivered a campaign speech in a western farming town rife with insurgents.
Another car pulled up alongside, and men with Kalashnikov rifles fired into the sheik's vehicle.
His candidacy in the coming parliamentary elections ended abruptly on that concrete span. The attack on Nov. 28 instantly killed Izzi and two colleagues from the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the country's most prominent Sunni Arab political groups. The assassins have not been found.
"Day after day, our people are sacrificing themselves for their beliefs," Ayad al-Samarraie, a party leader, said after hundreds of mourners marched out of the party headquarters in Baghdad last week, raising the sheik's coffin. "There are many groups trying to wreck the political process."
With just a little more than a week before the vote for a full, four-year government, the Bush administration sees Sunni Arab participation as the most crucial aspect of this final stage in the political process it created after toppling Saddam Hussein.
But perhaps no one has more enemies than the Sunni Arab politicians who have committed themselves to taking part in the elections.
Claiming to speak for factions in the insurgency, they campaign by denouncing the Shiite-led government and U.S. forces, yet are hounded by zealous Sunni militants like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who reject any involvement in the political process and brand the politicians as traitors.
Many of the Bush administration's hopes for helping Iraq build a stable government that can fight its own battles are pinned to Election Day. If large numbers of Sunni Arabs vote, the thinking goes, the strength of the insurgency may be diverted into the political process, and the U.S. military can begin withdrawing its 160,000 troops.
Sunni Arabs ruled Iraq for decades. Many members of that group boycotted the vote in January for a transitional National Assembly but say they now regret that move because they ceded too much power to the Shiites and Kurds.
Shiite Arabs, who make up at least 60 percent of the population, see the coming election as their chance to enshrine majority rule of the country, denied them since Iraq was formed by colonial powers during the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.
Kurds, non-Arabs who are mostly Sunni and make up one-fifth of Iraq, want enough say in the new government to protect the autonomy of their northern homeland and to stem the growing religious influence of the Iranian-backed Shiite parties.
Nearly 230 groups or individual politicians have registered, with some having banded together into 19 coalitions.
Sunni Arab parties are expected to make a strong showing in the elections for two reasons: Sunni clerics have issued a widespread call for their congregations to vote, and the electoral system divides most of the 275 parliamentary seats by province, guaranteeing that Sunni-dominated regions will get representation.
Even if it is unclear how many seats the Sunni Arab parties will win, they will wield leverage in the formation of the new government and no doubt use this to try to force the Shiites and Kurds to compromise on major issues like regional autonomy, the legal role of Islam and the sharing of oil wealth.
But in the final days of campaigning, the path to power is beset with dangers. Sheik Omar al-Jubouri, the head of the human rights office of the Iraqi Islamic Party, said at least 10 party members had been killed since the party announced in October the formation of a religious Sunni Arab coalition called the Iraqi Consensus Front to run in the election.
In early November, a well-known Sunni Arab candidate, Fakhri al-Qaisi, was seriously wounded by gunfire as he was driving in western Baghdad.
Tarik al-Hashimi, the head of the Iraqi Islamic Party, said he began receiving threats in October. He carries a handgun in his briefcase, he said, and travels with armed bodyguards.
But only some of the dangers involve Sunni militants. Party officials say they are equally fearful of the Shiite-led government's security forces, units made up of militiamen who some believe to be carrying out abductions and killings. Jubouri said 400 members of the Iraqi Islamic Party had been wrongly arrested since the formation of the religious Sunni coalition.
Some people blame Shiites rather than Sunni fighters for the assassination of Izzi. Last week, the Islamic Army of Iraq, a militant Sunni group, denounced the murder in an Internet posting. "We were stunned by the bad news," the militants wrote. Al Qaeda also denounced the killing on Sunday.
More than any other Sunni group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, which says it has 435 offices across Iraq, has tried to straddle the line between engaging in the political process and siding with what it considers the legitimate resistance, meaning nationalist guerrillas.
Other politicians, aside from Sunnis, have also been the targets of attacks.
The former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, said gunmen had tried to kill him Sunday in one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines, forcing him to cut short a campaign visit pursued by an angry mob, Reuters reported from Najaf. Allawi called the attack "an assassination attempt." Allawi, a secular Shiite, is considered a strong contender for the Sunni Arab vote because of his image as a tough leader and his former role in the Baath Party.
Sahar Najib in Baghdad and a New York Times employee in Falluja contributed reporting.