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Monday, December 05, 2005

Sunni Candidates in Iraq Find Enemies on All Sides - New York Times

Sunni Candidates in Iraq Find Enemies on All Sides - New York TimesDecember 5, 2005
Sunni Candidates in Iraq Find Enemies on All Sides
By EDWARD WONG

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 4 - 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 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 Sheik 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 western Baghdad last week, raising the sheik's wooden coffin. "There are many groups trying to wreck the political process."

With just a little more than a week before the vote on Dec. 15 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 American 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 administration's hopes for helping Iraq build a stable government that can fight its own battles - and for extricating the United States from a politically unpopular war - 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 American military can begin withdrawing its 160,000 troops.

Many Sunni Arabs, who ruled Iraq for decades, boycotted the vote last January for a transitional National Assembly, but say they now regret that because they ceded too much power to the Shiites and Kurds.

The 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.

The Kurds, one-fifth of Iraq, want enough say in the new government to protect the autonomous status of their northern homeland, and to stem the growing religious influence of the Iranian-backed Shiite parties.

Everyone knows that much is at stake. Nearly 230 groups or individual politicians have registered, with some of those having banded together into 19 coalitions. Campaign posters and television advertisements are proliferating.

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 exactly how many seats the Sunni Arab parties will win, they will wield significant 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, gunmen seriously wounded a well-known Sunni Arab candidate, Fakhri al-Qaisi, as he was driving in western Baghdad.

Days later, the head of the Iraqi Islamic Party branch in Ramadi, the capital of hostile Anbar Province, was accosted as he began pulling down anti-election posters that Mr. Zarqawi's group, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, had plastered in a central mosque. Insurgents dragged away the politician as worshipers watched, said Alaa Makki, the party's campaign manager. The man later was found dead.

Tarik al-Hashimi, the head of the party, said he began receiving threats in October. He carries a handgun in his briefcase, he said, and travels with armed bodyguards.

"I've gotten letters," Mr. Hashimi, a businessman and former army officer, said as he reclined in his office. "There have been messages circulated in mosques, e-mails and telephone calls. They say, 'Your name is atop the assassination list. You're an infidel now.' "

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. Sheik 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 Sheik 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. It was founded in the 1960's as an outgrowth of the Muslim Brotherhood. The group has regular contact with American officials here - the Americans even gave it one of 25 seats on the Iraqi Governing Council in 2003. But the party boycotted last January's elections, denouncing the American-led siege of Falluja.

In the late summer, it joined other Sunni Arab politicians in rejecting the proposed constitution when Shiite and Kurdish leaders ignored their demands. Then just days before the constitutional referendum in October, the party broke ranks with the Sunni establishment by asking voters to approve the document, after having negotiated a clause that would allow revisions by the new Parliament.

"That was one of the hardest decisions," Mr. Hashimi said.

That is when threats against the party increased. Offices were firebombed in Falluja and Ramadi. Gunmen ambushed clerics with ties to the party.

In recent weeks, the party has made an effort to strengthen its street credibility among the Sunnis. It made a flurry of announcements saying vote fraud had probably taken place during the referendum. It has also come out more vocally than ever against mass arrests by the Iraqi government and American forces.

Hatem Mukhlis, a Sunni Arab who heads a rival secular party in the election, the Assembly of Patriots, said the Iraqi Islamic Party had made the wrong decision by supporting the constitution, and was now desperately trying to salvage its reputation.

"They were generally considered to be traitors," said Mr. Mukhlis, a doctor who lived in the United States for 20 years. "They were really holding the stick in the middle, trying to do both things at once."

But the Iraqi Islamic Party has formidable allies in the two other prominent Sunni groups that are part of the Iraqi Consensus Front, the religious coalition expected to be the Sunni Arab front-runner in the elections. The alliance, which takes as its symbol the Islamic crescent and a palm frond, even has celebrity endorsements - Iraq's most famous soccer player, Ahmad Radhi, said at a news conference last week that he supported the coalition.

At a recent indoor rally in western Baghdad, one of the coalition's leaders, Adnan Dulaimi, who wields enormous influence in Sunni mosques, called on hundreds of clerics to tell their congregations to back the coalition. He promised it would help bring back the old Iraqi Army, take a stand against the detainee system and try to end the Shiite-led purges of former Baath Party members from the government.

"I've already called on people in Friday Prayer to support this list," said a slim, white-turbaned imam from Diyala Province, Sheik Ayad Ahmed Dulaimi, as he stood outside the hall. "We've suffered oppression. In order not to be marginalized, we need power in the National Assembly."

This access to mosques gives the coalition a huge advantage over more secular candidates like Mr. Mukhlis. The Iraqi Islamic Party has also begun advertising on television and putting up posters. The party has a campaign budget of $700,000, much of it raised through minimum donations of $200 from each member, said Mr. Makki, the campaign manager.

But to win Sunni Arab votes, these parties have to campaign in the most perilous parts of Iraq, where Mr. Zarqawi and other jihadists also hold sway.

"It's all dangerous, the work we're doing," Haider Khalil Hamid, 24, said as he worked with a dozen men to plaster posters for the Iraqi Islamic Party on a Baghdad boulevard. "The most important thing is to change the current government. The Sunnis don't feel comfortable with this sectarianism. Under Saddam's regime, it was good. Even in the time of Ayad Allawi, it was better than now."

Mr. Allawi, the former prime minister and a secular Shiite, will be a strong contender for the Sunni Arab vote because of his image as a tough leader and his former role in the Baath Party. Another ex-Baathist, Saleh Mutlak, has also emerged as a popular candidate among Sunnis. But whoever is their favorite politician, many Sunni Arabs say they must turn out to vote this time around.

"We will not let anyone marginalize us, and we will take our political right in administering Iraq," said Ibrahim Musleh al-Muhammadi, 40, a businessman in Falluja. "We say 'no' to the occupier and 'yes' to the freedom of Iraq."

Sahar Najib contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article, and an Iraqi employee of The New York Times from Falluja.

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