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Hazards on trail for Sunni politicians

Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority face a conundrum that has divided them as elections approach. At issue is the question of the most effective way to bring about change: from within or without.
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Instilled with an engineer's precision and an idealist's defiant optimism, Saad Abdel-Wahhab looks out at the campaign trail that begins at the headquarters of his political party, one of the few Sunni Muslim groups that has chosen to defy a boycott and take part in Iraq's nationwide elections in January. Along the way, he sees a gantlet.

In the northern city of Mosul, the stronghold of his Iraqi Islamic Party, insurgents overran a government warehouse and torched hundreds of boxes of voter registration forms. The party's candidates in the city begged Abdel-Wahhab and other election organizers not to print candidate addresses on applications, fearful their houses would be bombed.

One of the party's candidates for a local council was slain this week, and a militant Sunni group, the Ansar al-Sunna Army, has warned it would attack candidates as well as voters. That's from the insurgents.

'Stuck in the middle'
Abdel-Wahhab said he has to contend, too, with U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies, who under the cover of dark last week arrested one of the party's most prominent leaders at his home in Baghdad. By Abdel-Wahhab's count, U.S. and Iraqi forces have raided five of the Iraqi Islamic Party's offices. He fears another raid on the white stucco, two-story headquarters in Baghdad. His response: He and others copied campaign documents and dispersed them for safekeeping in colleagues' homes.

"We're between the hammer and the anvil, between Ansar al-Sunna and the Americans," said Abdel-Wahhab, a stocky man in a blue three-piece suit with a trimmed beard and a cheerful mien, as he sat at the party headquarters. "The resistance considers us agents of the Americans, and the Americans think we're working for the resistance."

He shook his head, then turned his palms upward. "We're stuck in the middle," he said.

Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority, long the country's rulers and now on the brink of disenfranchisement, face a conundrum that has divided them as elections approach for a 275-member National Assembly, which will appoint a government and oversee the assuredly contentious process of drafting a permanent constitution. Abdel-Wahhab's party is at the center of that dispute, and its success or failure could, its leaders believe, determine whether the elections are viewed as legitimate, an elusive quality in postwar Iraq.

At issue is an age-old question of the most effective way to bring about change: from within or without.

Election boycott
While many of Iraq's Shiite Muslims have embraced the vote as a way to ensure the power they believe they deserve as the majority, a number of influential Sunni groups have endorsed a boycott. It is a question of principle, they say, since no election can be truly fair as long as the U.S. occupation prevails. That position has been taken up by the powerful Association of Muslim Scholars, which claims to represent 3,000 Sunni mosques in Iraq. It has been endorsed by dozens of Sunni groups, as well as a handful of Shiite factions and personalities, who contend that even if the vote is held, violence wracking Sunni regions will keep voters from the polls.

"I don't see a lot of enthusiasm for the elections, and if they cannot break the resistance, people will fear to participate," said Wamidh Nadhmi, the spokesman for the Iraqi National Founding Conference, an umbrella group of parties that has joined the boycott. "I can't predict the future, but I don't think you'll find queues waiting to cast their votes."

The Iraqi Islamic Party, a conservative, religious group that was underground before the U.S. invasion, seconds many of the worries espoused by the groups boycotting. The party's leaders fear their core constituency will not vote -- nearly all the registration centers have been shut down in restive, Sunni-dominated Anbar province in western Iraq -- and they are suspicious of American intentions.

At the very least, said party spokesman Ayad Sammarai, elections should be delayed, and the Americans should negotiate with the opposition. After this month's assault on Fallujah, which destroyed hundreds of buildings in a city that had been under insurgent rule since April, voting, much less campaigning, would be difficult, perhaps impossible, he said.

"The people saw their neighbors, families and houses destroyed," Sammarai said. "They're in no mood to go on with the vote."

Optimistic fatalism
But so far, the party has insisted it will continue with the election, and the task has fallen to Abdel-Wahhab, a chemical engineer and father of three imbued with what might best be termed optimistic fatalism -- what will be will be, but I hope it will work out.

Abdel-Wahhab speaks for that segment of the Iraqi population that has looked at almost every turn since Saddam Hussein fell on April 9, 2003, with resilient hope, even if despair and disillusionment with the United States ensued. There was the collapse of Hussein's government, the appointment of the interim government under Prime Minister Ayad Allawi in June and now the elections, to be conducted at 9,000 polling places across Iraq and among exiles abroad. His sentiment is heard often in Baghdad's streets: The elections are less a celebration of newfound freedoms and more a means to bring stability to chaotic Iraq.

"It's the only way for us to emerge from this crisis," Abdel-Wahhab said.

The election headquarters he runs in a former Baath Party building is a cramped affair, where 20 people have been working in earnest since July, often putting in 12-hour days. As is the custom among Islamic activists, most of the men wear beards; their Western-style suits are less traditional. On one wall is a Koranic verse in blue: "Adhere together in the path of God and do not divide." On two other walls are a map of Baghdad and one of Iraq. Four fluorescent bulbs overhead provide meager light.

On another wall is the party's election logo, which will appear on the ballot. The party's symbol is a bee fluttering over honeycomb, with a Koranic verse about God's inspiration. (The election commission rejected the logos of a few other groups: a Koran with a halo around it, an image of a mass grave and one that pictured a Kalashnikov rifle.)

Ambitious plans canceled
In the summer, before the boycott was declared, Abdel-Wahhab said he had ambitious plans.

He was prepared to photocopy 500,000 leaflets to distribute in Baghdad and towns in the region north and west of the capital known as the Sunni Triangle. A similar number would be handed out during Friday prayers at mosques where the party's religious agenda might be received warmly. The leaflets called voting a duty and quoted nearly a dozen Sunni clerics endorsing the view. He planned 20 lectures during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in Baghdad. Delegations from the party's 400 branches would try to visit as many as 50 houses a day. At that rate, he estimated, they could cover 5 million people in a month.

After U.S. forces attacked Fallujah, he canceled all the plans.

"I couldn't do it," Abdel-Wahhab said. "The people wouldn't accept it."

"They tell me, 'Don't you see the river of blood flowing? Are you crazy to take part in the elections?' "

His deputy, Saad Adel, nodded his head. "We are dealing with Sunnis, and most of the Sunni regions are gripped by the resistance," he said. "The idea is that elections give legitimacy to the occupation and the interim government."

Abdel-Wahhab recalled a saying sometimes mentioned in Iraq. If your right eye twitches, it's a sign of impending evil. If your left eye twitches, it's an omen of good things to come. Despite his optimism, Abdel-Wahhab admits his right eye is twitching.

The resentment of the U.S. presence is so deep among some of his friends and the threats of retaliation by insurgents taken so seriously that Abdel-Wahhab refuses to be photographed. When he visits the election commission in the heavily fortified area known as the Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and offices of the interim government are located, he fears for his life.

"When I go there," he said, "I ask God, 'Do not take my soul.' "

Election fears
The party has tried to publicize fatwas, or religious edicts, to encourage voting. One hangs in the headquarters on a green bulletin board and insists that not only should Muslims vote but they should work at the polling stations, too.

The fatwa has done little to ease the fear. Along the wood table in the center of the room is stack after stack of three-page applications for candidacy. About 400 people have applied, of whom 250 will be chosen. This week, the 45 or so candidates from Mosul asked that their addresses be left off. "If you don't, they'll slaughter us, absolutely," Adel quoted one as saying when he visited Tuesday.

Instead, in the space is written: "Iraqi Islamic Party, General Headquarters."

"We have to protect ourselves. We can't even do that," Abdel-Wahhab said. "How are we going to protect the candidates?"

On one of the walls is a white board with the candidates -- from Baghdad, Mosul, Diyala and Kirkuk in the north and Basra in the south. Men's names are in blue; women's in red. The name of Nasir Ayef, a party leader, is still listed, despite his arrest by U.S. forces in a pre-dawn raid on Nov. 16. "Do I leave him on the list or do I take him off?" Abdel-Wahhab asked.

He shook his head and looked out at the mess.

A phone line was strung from a jack in the wall, up to the ceiling and over the table, where papers competed for space with staplers, hole punchers, paper clips and tape. Sitting in plastic chairs, the men smiled and laughed as they filled out application forms and filed papers in boxes and folders stacked on a crumbling wood shelf. There was a dusty computer to the side, but most of the work at this headquarters was done by hand, laboriously, with the help of a dilapidated photocopier against the wall.

On the bulletin board was an article whose headline read, "Elections . . . between reality and hope."

"Only God will judge us -- not Sunnis, not the Americans," Abdel-Wahhab said as the day drew to an end.

"If the elections are transparent and conducted with integrity, and if people vote, it's a way to stop the fires burning in the country," he said. "If I'm sitting at home, alone in my house, I can't imagine that I can stop the fires from burning."