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Sunni Muslim political leaders reach out to Iraqi militants

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Sunni Muslim political leaders are reaching out to militants in Iraq's most violent cities for help getting out the vote to compete with much better organized Shiite Muslim rivals in January's elections.

While it's a struggle to persuade fighters and resistance sympathizers that voting doesn't mean selling out to an American-crafted election process, there are signs that at least some militant groups may be sympathetic to the call.

Participating in the election would convey legitimacy to the U.S. effort, which militants might find repugnant. But boycotting the vote would hand the government uncontested to their traditional rivals, the Shiites, an outcome that Sunnis also would want to avoid.

The Sunni parties are wooing remnants of Saddam Hussein's military, many of whom had their fortunes reversed when the Sunni-dominated regime fell.

"We are seeking elections, encouraging elections, but how can they be held someplace like Fallujah, which has sacrificed so many victims because of the Americans?" asked Sheik Ahmed Ghafur al Samurraie of the Muslim Scholars Association, an umbrella group for hard-line Sunni factions. "The people there ask, `Is this election just for the benefit of the occupier?' We'll still keep teaching people about the elections, but we agree that elections under occupation are not complete."

The Sunni heartland lies north and west of the capital, through lush farmlands and desert outposts that have seen some of the most intense clashes between insurgents and U.S.-led troops. Military offensives have cleaned out many guerrilla pockets, but daily attacks on American soldiers and the proliferation of no-go zones for foreigners reveal lingering unrest.

In Mosul, where the bodies of at least five beheading victims were found this week, potential voters said the local insurgency was right to be suspicious of an election process ushered in by Americans.

"The elections would be fake and dishonest because the occupier will bring the names of the candidates he wants and not the candidates the people want," said Ghaleb Suleiman, 27, a textile merchant. "I'd vote for a Sunni religious man."

Ahmed al Mashadani, 34, a shopkeeper, not only wouldn't vote, but also opposes bringing ballot boxes to Mosul.

"The elections won't be held because we won't support the government imposed on us by the occupying forces," al Mashadani said. "There is no one I'm convinced of. They all represent the interests of the occupying forces."

Some Sunnis broke ranks with resistance sympathizers to quietly assert that free, democratic elections are the only way to curb the Islamic extremism sweeping across Sunni territory.

"I welcome democratic elections and, if it's God's will, the people of Mosul and Samarra will participate," said Saad Riyadh, 25, who runs a money-changing kiosk. "Genuine elections won't leave anyone out. And I hope the winner is a secular, cultured person who has nothing to do with religion."

Iraqi and U.S. administrators, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, have hinted that some Sunni areas may be too dangerous for elections. Polls to select a national assembly must take place by Jan. 31, according to Iraq's interim law. The first democratic vote since Saddam's ouster will choose the body that drafts a permanent constitution and supervises presidential elections by the end of 2005.

The only hope that Sunnis have against the estimated 65 percent Shiite majority is to galvanize voters in their troubled bases of support, even if it means negotiating with the shadowy groups that run the no-go cities. Shiites, who have a more centralized clergy and better success as courting militants such as rebel leader Muqtada al-Sadr, appear ready to sweep the elections.

A Western diplomat, who asked not to be named, said Sunnis faced serious losses unless they got in line: "If the various parts of the resistance coalesced into one group and formed a message, that could be a political party."

Mohsin Abdul Hameed, the head of the conservative Iraqi Islamic Party and a member of the interim national assembly, said his group had distributed fliers and arranged seminars for constituents in flash-point towns. He's also met with militant Sunni religious leaders, asking them to encourage voting in weekly sermons usually reserved for lambasting America and encouraging armed resistance.

"If any part of (Sunni) Iraq is excluded from elections, that means disenfranchising a third of the population," Hameed said. "The new government would lack legitimacy and we'd be starting all over again."

Political parties are trying to make contact with the volatile western city of Fallujah, run by a council of anti-American Sunni leaders, through merchants and lawyers who shuttle between their hometown and Baghdad. Resistance members believe politicians are trying to exploit and control them, said Maki al Nazzal, a Fallujah native and an advocate for the nationalist resistance forces in his city.

They say, "We will do it our way,'" al Nazzal said.

Gunmen in Fallujah recently confiscated a shipment of posters that election officials had hoped would encourage residents to vote, said Farid Ayar of the Independent Electoral Commission, the government agency that's overseeing the elections. Just when Ayar was ready to write off the posters as a loss, he said, he was astonished to hear they were hanging in several public buildings in Fallujah.

The commission took that as a sign that the militants at least want to learn more about the elections. Ayar said there still were plans to open election centers in Fallujah and its sister hot spot of Ramadi.

Qassim Dawoud, the minister of state for national security, said he was optimistic about peace negotiations in Fallujah, where government officials are meeting with tribal and religious leaders to "liberate the people of Fallujah" before the elections. However, he conceded that neither tribal elders nor U.S.-appointed officials could guarantee that the insurgents who really run the city would abide by peace conditions.

"(Terrorists) are trying to impose their own agenda on the residents," Dawoud said recently.


(Youssef reports for the Detroit Free Press. Knight Ridder Newspapers special correspondents Hussein Ali and Shatha R. al Awsy contributed to this report.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.