Infighting Marks Sunni Political Efforts in Iraq

As political wrangling continues in the wake of Iraq's parliamentary elections, Kurds and Sunnis have worked to form coalitions that could hold their own against the Shiite ticket's majority. But unlike the Kurds, who agreed to overlook their differences and focus on their common goal of independence, the Sunni coalition has begun to split.

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Now today's death toll in Iraq now stands at more than 100 people. That makes this one of the bloodiest days in the three-year insurgency. It follows a series of deadly attacks yesterday and all this represents a dramatic increase in violence since the parliamentary election last month.

Iraq's Sunni Arabs turned out in large numbers to vote in that election, but they're not happy with the results. American officials had been hoping that Sunni Muslims would get some role in Iraq's new government. They want Sunnis in the political process and out of supporting the insurgency. But the chances of Sunni participation have been complicated by a split in Sunni ranks. From Baghdad, NPR's Jamie Tarabay reports.

JAMIE TARABAY reporting:

On the surface, at least, Iraq's Sunnis seem to be struggling to grasp the concept that they are no longer the dominant political group in Iraq.

(Soundbite of people chanting in foreign language, horns beeping)

TARABAY: Sunni politicians and their supporters cheered on election day, confident at their success. Then, as the early results showed a different reality, the mood changed. This comedown for Iraq's once all-powerful minority is most apparent in its leaders like Salih Mutlaq, a former Baath Party member, born in Fallujah. Mutlaq heads the National Dialogue Council, one of several Sunni-based groups that fielded candidates in the election. He told NPR he expected his group to win 100 seats in the incoming parliament. So far it's won fewer than 20. Overall, Sunni parties appear to have won about 50 seats, slightly fewer than the Kurdish parties and far fewer than the Iraq's majority Shiites. But Mutlaq says describing the Sunnis as a minority in Iraq is insulting.

Mr. SALIH MUTLAQ (National Dialogue Council): It cannot be accepted, the Sunnis is as much as the Kurds. This is, you know, absolutely wrong. Maybe the Shiites a little bit more, but that doesn't mean that the Sunni Arab is as small as that, their percentages. So they are insulting them so much every time.

TARABAY: The other main Sunni coalition, the National Accord Front, did better. Earlier results show it winning nearly 30 seats in the new parliament, but a split within Sunni ranks that emerged before the election has grown even wider now. Mutlaq says all the Sunni groups and the secular party headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi agreed to stick together to challenge the election results, which they describe as fraudulent, and that agreed to put off any talk of a new government until their complaints were investigated. That seemed to change this week when leaders of the Iraqi Accord Front traveled north for political talks with the Kurdish leadership. Batarical Hatashmi(ph), one of the Sunni leaders, insists it was nothing more than a courtesy call.

Mr. BATARICAL HATASHMI (Sunni Leader): We told them specifically that until we resolve the outstanding issue rigged to election, we are not going to go into a detailed dialogue with anybody concerning the next government.

Mr. MUTLAQ: I believe that, you know, they cannot spend two days only talking about the election.

TARABAY: Mutlaq thinks the Iraqi Accord Front is trying to make political deals now because its situation is tenuous.

Mr. MUTLAQ: They really anti--they don't like the election to be repeated because they will not even get 50 percent of what they get now.

TARABAY: During the election campaign, Mutlaq and other Sunni leaders reached out to Iraq's insurgents, most of them Sunnis, asking them to hold off on attacks while the political process played out. Sunni leaders are expected to use their influence with the insurgents as a bargaining chip in negotiations over a new government, but Mutlaq says the insurgents are watching, waiting to see if politicians can achieve what they haven't so far, an American withdrawal and a greater grasp on power.

Mr. MUTLAQ: None of us can influence really them. We can only influence them when we prove to them that we are doing the right thing.

TARABAY: For the Sunnis, doing the right thing means curbing the power of the Shiites and ensuring that Iraq has a strong central government. Sunni leaders say unless they can achieve those goals, the insurgency will continue. Jamie Tarabay, NPR News, Baghdad.

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