Here in the birthplace of Iraq's insurgency and its later turnabout against al-Qaida, Sunni Arabs are pushing to get out the vote in an election they see as their best hope of restoring some of their lost power. But they are gloomy over their chances of succeeding.
They say what should have been an open vote has been tainted after hundreds of their candidates were blacklisted from the ballot. More broadly, they fear the nation's Shiite majority will bring to power hard-line religious parties who will only solidify Iraq's sectarian divisions.
Far from bringing peace, the March 7 parliamentary elections could bring disputes over the results that could undo reconciliation efforts between Sunnis and Shiites, or worse, provoke a new wave of attacks.
"If they feel their rights have been robbed, it might lead to sectarian violence," Anbar province First Deputy Gov. Hikmat Jasim Zaidan, said of Sunnis in an interview in Ramadi, the region's capital.
"In the West, when your right is robbed, you go to the courts. But in Iraq, it's different — when your right is robbed, (you) resort to violence," he said.
Once Iraq's ruling elite during Saddam Hussein's regime, Sunnis lost much of their power after the U.S. invasion toppled the former leader. They then squandered what little they had left by boycotting January 2005 parliamentary elections, which sealed the dominance of Shiite parties in Baghdad. By the time they took part in a second election that December, the Sunni insurgency was already in full swing, poisoning relations with Shiites and eventually bringing the country to the brink of civil war.
The good news this time — for Sunni leaders and for U.S. officials trying to boost reconciliation — is that Sunnis appear to be shrugging off brief talk of a boycott after the candidates ban.
Get out the vote
Campaign posters and billboards cover Ramadi's downtown market, and political ads have saturated the al-Anbar satellite TV channel. A campaign rally last week took place despite a suicide bombing nearby just a day earlier that killed two police officers.
Sunni Arabs make up about 20 percent of Iraq's estimated population of 28 million. Anbar province is their stronghold, stretching west from Baghdad to the borders with Syria and Jordan. An estimated 800,000 Sunnis are registered to vote in Anbar, a desert expanse that is a little smaller than New York state.
Anbar Gov. Qasim al-Fahadawi said Tuesday he defied doctors' orders to come home from San Antonio, Texas, and encourage Sunnis to vote. In Texas, he underwent leg surgery and was outfitted for a prosthetic arm after a December suicide bomb attack on his Ramadi office.
"I want Anbar to succeed in the election," he said, sitting in a wheelchair. While the candidates blacklist "put us in a very difficult situation," al-Fahadawi said, "we are trying to persuade the people that if they don't go to the elections, they will lose more."
At the Ramadi home of one candidate last week, tribal chiefs gathered to hash out ways to drum up Sunni turnout.
Sheik Ali Kadhem Ali of Fallujah said voters should be reminded of how Sunnis rose up against al-Qaida in Anbar, which had been the heartland of the insurgency and was once considered Iraq's most dangerous province.
Those Sons of Iraq, or Sahwa, fighters were the genesis of a nationwide campaign in 2005-06 that is generally credited with turning the tide in the war. The turnaround has boosted Sunni sentiment that they deserve a say in decision-making in Baghdad.
"We formed the Sahwa — this is written in history, and now our families are protected," Ali said. "For this reason we ask people to go to the elections to vote."
The blacklist has fueled Sunni feeling that Shiites are trying to squeeze them out of power. A Shiite-dominated committee, led by two politicians whom U.S. officials accuse of being linked to Iran, ordered the ban on 440 candidates on suspicion of ties to Saddam's former ruling Baath Party. The ban is widely believed to target mostly Sunnis although a sectarian breakdown has never been released and Shiites are included.
The main Sunni political bloc splintered in 2008, and its chief remaining faction, the Iraqi Islamic Party, is shunned by many mainstream Sunnis because of its hard-line religious ties. As a result, many of Anbar's voters say they will support coalitions that combine Sunni and Shiite candidates in a nonsectarian platform, like the Iraqiya list headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a moderate Shiite.
One of the most prominent banned candidates, Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq, was on Allawi's slate, and many of his supporters say they would still give their votes to the list.
"I'd vote for al-Mutlaq, but since he's banned, I will vote for his coalition," said Khalid Jamal, 20, a first-year Arabic student at Anbar University in Ramadi. He said Allawi had been "useful during his time in parliament, and he is not sectarian."
Sunnis hope moderate coalitions that include both sects will balance the hard-line Shiite groups that they accuse of links to Iran and that could get the bulk of the Shiite majority's support.
The biggest Shiite coalition is the Iraqi National Alliance, an overtly religious grouping led by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and followers of the radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Sunnis also remain suspicious of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who has tried to distance himself from Tehran and cast his State of Law Coalition as nonsectarian. Last week, his government announced it would reinstate 20,000 Saddam-era army officers who were dismissed after the 2003 invasion. But many called that move a blatant election ploy.
Saadoun al-Dulaimi, a Sunni candidate in Ramadi, fears that whatever the turnout, the result will remain a sharply sectarian leadership in Iraq.
"We cannot build a great nation and cannot respond to the needs of Iraq, if we are controlled by sectarian politics," al-Dulaimi said, fingering prayer beads during an interview in his home. Al-Dulaimi, who served as defense minister after Saddam's fall, is running with the Iraq Unity Alliance, which includes Sunnis and Shiites.
With few well-known Sunni candidates, Allawi has stepped into the void, said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
"Allawi is an old fox — he is trying to play all sides at the same time. And Sunnis really have few choices for whom to vote," Ottaway said.