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Election results leave Sunnis almost unrepresented, but not at a loss

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Trounced in the election, Iraq's Sunni Muslims are a scorned political faction already plotting—and promising—a comeback in the next campaign.

Of all the major Sunni-dominated slates, only Interim President Ghazi al-Yawer's won seats in the new National Assembly, earning about five of 275 seats at stake.

Even before the results were in, mainstream Sunni political leaders were meeting with the now victorious Shiite parties to carve a place for themselves in the new government and to help write a permanent constitution.

They also are meeting among themselves, debating how to take on the powerful United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite-dominated slate with close ties to Iran that decisively beat 110 other tickets in the Jan. 30 election.

All strategic options are up for discussion among Sunnis. Should they consolidate and form a Sunni counterpart to the Alliance slate? Should they promote themselves as a secular alternative to the religious-led alliance? Or should they create a slate that promotes Iraqi nationalism, as an antidote to sectarianism?

Sunnis will have another crack at elections in December, after the transitional national assembly just elected draws up a new constitution.

"There is a mutual need for each (ethnic group) to come under a national slate," said Hazim Abdel Hamid al-Nuaimi, a professor of politics at al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, Sunnis, with about 20 percent of the population, have fought to retain control of the government, something they had for more than three decades and that many consider a birthright. Disaffected Sunnis have largely driven the insurgency. And while minority Sunnis can't win an election outright, they hope to be a formidable opposition to the new Shiite-led government.

A strong, visibly influential Sunni voice could potentially blunt the insurgency. Conversely, failure could stoke more violence.

Sunni leaders concede that agreeing on one voice to represent them will be difficult. Unlike the Shiites, Sunnis—riven by tribal loyalties—do not yet have a decisive single leader such as the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. During the campaign, the religiously conservative Muslim Scholars Association told Sunnis to boycott the balloting while secular groups like the Iraqi Democratic Gathering encouraged participation.

And, for now, Sunnis can't agree on what to do next.

Talk of Sunni unity is already permeating sermons at mosques, however. At the Abu Hanyfa Mosque in Baghdad Friday, Sheikh Mauaeed al-Adhamyee told worshippers: "Our aims shouldn't be on getting this ministry or getting that position. We should focus on unity (because) any aim cannot be accomplished without unity."

Ayad Samaree, deputy chairman of the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the largest Sunni-dominated parties, said his party is looking for a "common way of thinking" among Sunnis. "We are not looking to represent ourselves just as Sunnis. But of course, we should focus on our Sunni community."

Many Sunnis boycotted the last elections, in part, because they said it was unfair to hold them when many of their constituents lived in areas too dangerous for voters to go polling centers. And some called the process illegitimate while the nation was under occupation.

Less than 4 percent of the largest Sunni province—Anbar—participated in the elections.

Many Sunnis believed up until the last minute that the January elections would not be held, and are now shell-shocked. Few are considering boycotting the next one.

"If we knew matters were going to turn out this way, I would have at least voted for (Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi," said al-Nuaimi. The elections will lead Sunnis to form "a national counterpart to the United Iraqi Alliance."

Interim President al-Yawer's party already is jockeying for a prominent position in the new government.

"Even if he is not president again," ventured Hatchim al-Hassani, one of the candidates on al-Yawer's slate, "maybe he could be the head of the assembly."

Adnan Pachachi, a seasoned Sunni leader who ran on the Iraqi Democratic Gathering slate that won no seats, said the fact that Sunnis voted for several parties was good for democracy.

If the Sunnis created their sect's version of the United Iraq Alliance, "that would be the worst. It would be polarizing," Pachachi told Knight Ridder. The majority of Iraqis, he said, "would like to establish a secular democracy."

Other Sunni politicians think a nationalistic message would be more appealing to voters. They said that before the war, labeling oneself a Shiite or Sunni was not common because everyone considered himself or herself an Iraqi first. A nationalistic slate could draw both sects to one party and quell the growing sectarianism, they argue.

But they also concede that Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who appealed to voters as a nationalist, won only about 14 percent of the vote while the United Iraqi Alliance earned 48 percent.

Sadoun al-Dulame, a Sunni and the executive director for the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies in Baghdad, said Allawi learned from this election that "he cannot rely on the Shiite people to be nationalists" because "the religious clerics are more influential."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050213 USIRAQ election

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