Sunni moves towards participation welcomed


Iraq: Iraq's new Shia-dominated government has welcomed the end of a Sunni boycott of politics, encouraging a newly formed Sunni bloc to distance itself from insurgent attacks against civilians and security forces.

The radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, meanwhile, has taken up the unlikely role of mediator between Shia and Sunni factions, circulating a message that called for all sides to renounce the killing of all Iraqis, a Sunni official said.

The overtures by opponents of the new Iraqi government emerged over the weekend as violence in Iraq has increasingly involved blood-for-blood attacks on Sunni and Shia clerics.

An influential Sunni group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, has blamed Shia-led security forces for the killings of Sunni preachers, saying on its website on Sunday that one cleric was tortured with an electric drill before he was killed.

On Saturday more than 1,000 Sunnis from the association and other groups, joined by other Sunni religious and tribal leaders, said they wanted to help write Iraq's new constitution and compete in elections.

The announcement broke a de facto political boycott by most Sunnis that had held since the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-led government in April 2003.

Drawing the disaffected Sunni minority into the democratic process has been seen as essential to ending the Sunni-led insurgency. More than 400 Iraqis have been killed in bombings and shootings in the weeks since prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a Shia, took office last month. A statement from the Sunni bloc on Saturday said resistance against "occupiers" was lawful but should be exercised by legal means.

Al-Sadr's aides, meanwhile, met the Association of Muslim Scholars and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shia political party. They carried a pledge that said "We forbid the bloodshed of any Iraqi," said Abdul Salam Kubaisi, a member of the Association of Muslim Scholars.

There was no word yet of the Shia group's response to the overture.

Although al-Sadr is a Shia, he sympathises with some Sunnis in opposition to the new government and the US military forces that support it. He went into hiding last year after leading uprisings against US forces, but resurfaced last week.

"Iraq needs to stand side-by-side for the time being," al-Sadr said on al-Arabiya television in an interview aired on Sunday, explaining his overtures this week. He referred to growing fears that Iraq was moving towards full-scale war as violence increases between the Shias and Sunnis. - (LA Times-Washington Post service)