msnbc.com news services
updated 12/1/2004 2:31:28 PM ET 2004-12-01T19:31:28

Iraqi President Ghazer al-Yawer, an influential Sunni Muslim, said Wednesday that elections should be held on time on Jan. 30, giving key support to the timetable despite violence in large parts of the country and calls by some powerful Sunnis to postpone the vote.

Al-Yawer, a businessman and tribal elder who was appointed to the largely symbolic post of president in June, is the first prominent Sunni to reject calls for a delay.

“We must go ahead with elections, from a legal and a moral point of view,” he said at a news conference in Baghdad.

Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, meanwhile, met with Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders in neighboring Jordan, trying to drum up support for the election, which is seen as vital for building a democratic government in Iraq.

Allawi had denied media reports that he would meet members of the opposition. But he did hold talks with figures who are powerful in the Sunni regions of central Iraq where opposition to his U.S.-backed administration is strong and insurgent violence has been fiercest.

Insurgents continued to launch attacks Wednesday. On Baghdad’s dangerous airport highway, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive-laden vehicle near two SUVs, wounding three civilians, according to police, while U.S. soldiers traveling through Mosul on a mission to discuss the election with Iraqis came under fire when they stopped at a gasoline station, witnesses said.

New backing for vote
The persistent violence has raised fears that voting will be impossible in some areas.

The election controversy has divided Iraq largely along sectarian and ethnic lines. Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of the population but were long oppressed under former President Saddam Hussein, insist that the polls must go ahead on Jan. 30 as scheduled, confident that the election will cement their new political clout.

But Sunnis, who dominated the country during Saddam’s rule despite comprising only 20 percent of the population, fear that they are being marginalized and say violence in Sunni areas will prevent the election from being free and fair.

Several key Sunni politicians have called for postponing the ballot for up to six months to buy time to resolve the security crisis and persuade Sunni clerics to drop their call for a boycott.

But al-Yawer, who wields considerable influence among Sunni tribal figures, especially in the north, told reporters in Baghdad that he opposed any delay.

“I personally think that there is a legal and a moral obligation to hold elections on the set date,” he said. “Legally and morally, we have to abide by the date set for the elections in the country’s administrative law,” which mandates a ballot by the end of January.

Asked about Allawi’s visit to Jordan, al-Yawer said “the government wants to encourage some groups of brothers who feel that they want to oppose” the current leadership to join the political process.

Among those with whom Allawi met in Jordan were Majid al-Suleiman, an influential member of the Sunni Duleim tribe of central Iraq, said Thaer al-Naqib, Allawi’s spokesman.

Also attending were tribal leaders from Ramadi and Fallujah, two Sunni towns west of Baghdad that have been major insurgent strongholds, according to Emad Shabib, who was at the meeting.

Allawi “outlined ... his vision for the future, the reform process, and urged everyone to participate in the national Iraqi political process,” said Shabib, an executive of the Iraqi National Accord, which Allawi led while in exile.

Before leaving Tuesday for Jordan, Allawi branded reports that he would meet with former figures in Saddam Hussein’s Baath party as “an invention by the media,” although word of such contacts came last week from the Foreign Ministry. Former Baath party leaders are believed to form the core of the insurgency.

Get-out-the-vote campaign
Tangible evidence of plans for the voting appeared Wednesday when the government began airing four television spots featuring a popular comedian known as Uday as part of a get-out-the-vote campaign.

The advertisements were shot by a well-known Iraqi actor-turned-filmmaker on behalf of the Independent Electoral Commission, which is organizing the Jan. 30 poll.

With just 60 days left until the elections, Iraq’s electoral authorities are rushing to get voters and parties registered and to ensure that all arrangements are in place.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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