Prague, 23 May 2005 (RFE/RL) - The conference, the largest of Sunni leaders since the fall of Saddam Hussein in early 2003, agreed the community will take part in future Iraqi elections and work with the current Shi'ite-led government.
But does this really mark a breakthrough?
Ammar al-Shahbander, a regional expert with the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, says it likely does.
"It's too early to tell, but the preliminary signs indicate that it is a breakthrough because it's the first time Arab Sunnis in Iraq have one political and religious leadership, one reference that they can refer to," al-Shahbander said. "That didn't exist before that conference."
Al-Shahbander said it seems Sunni Arabs have finally understood it was a mistake to boycott the January elections.
"They discovered they did the big mistake to encourage Arab Sunnis in Iraq to boycott the elections last time," al- Shahbander said. "They noticed that they have lost a lot and they couldn't stop the political process."
Just 17 Sunni Arabs were elected to the 275-seat National Assembly after the Sunni community most stayed away from the January poll.
David Hartwell, a Middle East expert with the London-based Jane's Sentinel Security Assessments, agreed. He said the move might indicate that Sunnis think the boycott was counterproductive.
"There is no [tangible] Sunni participation in the parliament and now they are having to rely on the good grace of Shi'as and the Kurds to sort of allow them to sort of take part in the political process," Hartwell said.
The conference took place against a backdrop of violence that has resulted in the deaths of more than 600 people at the hands of insurgents in the past three weeks.
Sectarian tensions seem also to be on the rise. At least 10 Sunni and Shi'ite clerics have been assassinated in tit-for-tat killings in the past two weeks. The developments have placed pressure on the new government and Sunni Arabs alike.
Al-Shahbander said the head of the Arab League, Amru Musa, is encouraging Iraqi Sunnis to unite, defend their interests, and return to politics.
Al-Shahbander said be believes the country's Sunni minority is now united and that the conference's decision to rejoin the political fold did not meet resistance even from the groups supporting the insurgency.
However, the daily "Los Angeles Times" yesterday quoted Fakhri Qaisi, deputy secretary of the radical Religious Guidance Organization, as telling Iraqi television that he and other prominent Sunni leaders skipped the meeting because they feared it would only "make sectarianism deeper."
Sunni participation in Iraq's political process in likely to come at a price. The conference announced that Sunnis expect some government posts as a reward for its decision -- namely, the post of interior minister.
Al-Shahbander said that could raise suspicions for some members of Iraq's other communities.
"You have to understand that Arab Sunnis have ruled Iraq for the past 70 years. During that period Iraq had more than 30 coup d' etat attempts," al-Shahbander said. "Saddam Hussein was the one who basically stayed in power more than everybody else using security apparatus to get rid of his opponents. They are still thinking with that mentality -- that whomever controls the security apparatus of Iraq will be the real ruler of Iraq."
Sunnis constitute less than 20 percent of Iraq's population but were favored under the regime of Saddam Hussein, who was a Sunni. Shi'a, who make up 60 percent of the population, and ethnic Kurds -- both oppressed by the former regime -- now effectively hold the reins of power.
It is difficult to say if Sunni participation in politics will radically reduce the recent upsurge of violence.
Al-Shahbander said it will not affect criminal gangs, hard-core Islamists, or followers of Saddam Hussein but will definitely decrease the number of people who are fighting for what they understand as a Sunni cause or out of desperation that Sunnis are being left out in the cold.
Iraq: Sunnis Seek Greater Political Participation
By Valentinas Mite
Iraq's once dominant Sunni minority has largely stayed outside of the country's political process, including boycotting landmark elections for a National Assembly in January. But now there are increasing signs the Sunni leadership is changing its position. On 21 May, some 1,000 Sunni leaders from many religious and political groupings, as well as many tribal leaders, said they want to help write Iraq's new constitution and compete in future elections.
Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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