Sunni Arabs Are Uniting to Compete With Shiites

By SABRINA TAVERNISE and RICHARD A. OPPEL Jr.

New York Times

May 22, 3005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 21 - 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 on Saturday, seeking to win back the political ground they had lost to Shiites.

The meeting 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 was 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, at a Baghdad social club, delegates called on fellow Sunnis to cast aside doubts and throw themselves into politics to try to weigh in on the writing of a constitution, which is 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.

The gathering filled a large auditorium, and tribal sheiks in flowing robes could be seen spilling out into hallways. "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."

The conference came amid increased tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, with Sunni Arabs in recent days accusing Shiite militias of killing clerics and raiding mosques. On Thursday, the Muslim Scholars and the Iraqi Islamic Party ordered dozens of Sunni mosques temporarily closed to protest the deaths, and at least four mosques in central Baghdad were locked on Saturday.

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 American 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. One conspicuous absence on Saturday was that of the National Dialogue Council, the group that took the lead in the ill-fated negotiations with Shiites for positions in the new cabinet. Conference organizers dismissed the group as without constituents and said it had made exaggerated claims about its ties to the insurgency.

Shiites "do have better organization than us," Mr. Hashimy said, "but there's a chance for Sunnis to arrange their differences."

Sunnis will also try to cast a wider political net and reach out to secular Shiites as well as to Kurds, Mr. Pachachi said. He said he had met with Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister, a tough-talking secular Shiite, and they had agreed to join forces to compete with the more religious Shiite parties in the next election.

The violence continued in Sunni areas of the country on Saturday. In Baiji, 120 miles north of Baghdad, gunmen fired on commandos from the Iraqi Interior Ministry driving on the main highway between Tikrit and Mosul about 1 a.m., killing four commandos and wounding two others, the Interior Ministry said.

The Sunni political organizing came as Sunni Arabs expressed outrage over pictures of Saddam Hussein in his underwear first published Friday in tabloid newspapers in London and New York, and republished widely in Iraq and the Arab world on Saturday morning.

An American military spokesman said Saturday that officials now believe the pictures were taken between January 2004 and April 2004 by American military personnel. The spokesman said it was possible the pictures were taken from surveillance cameras. One clue to the timing, the spokesman said, is that Mr. Hussein has had a beard for close to a year but has only a mustache in the pictures. For many Sunni Arabs, the pictures were an outrage.

"He was our president for 35 years," said Ahmed Muhammad, a laborer in a Sunni district of Baghdad. "Whether he has been good, evil or a dictator, no one has the right to show his photos like that. Above all, he is human. And Iraqi."

But among many Shiites and Kurds, the pictures were a mild humiliation compared with what they said Mr. Hussein deserved.

"This shows Saddam just like any small criminal," said Simko Adham, 36, a lawyer in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah. "They are taking care of him. He's allowed to take a shower, shave, wear clean clothes and dye his hair. He's in a clean room. It just looks like he never did any big crime. When he was in power he didn't allow prisoners to have 10 percent of the rights he has now."

In Baghdad, five popular newspapers in the capital carried front-page pictures of Mr. Hussein and accompanying articles.

In another measure of the difficulties besetting the American effort here, United States officials who met with reporters on Saturday for an update on the $21 billion American-financed reconstruction said that 295 contractors working on American projects had been killed in attacks since the rebuilding began two years ago. Most of the deaths came in the past year, and 19 were in the last month.

Zaineb Obeid contributed reporting for this article.