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Sunnis May Participate in Iraq's Elections

Iraq's most powerful Sunni group will participate in the county's upcoming elections if the U.S. set a timeframe for a full withdrawal, a spokesman for the group said.

Members of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars conveyed their demand to a top U.S. Embassy official at a meeting Saturday, the spokesman said on condition of anonymity.

The official also said that the U.S. Embassy initiated the meeting, adding that the association was represented by its leader, Sheikh Harith al-Dhari, and public relations chief, Abdul-Salam al-Kobeisi.

"Dr. Harith al-Dhari insisted that a timeframe for the withdrawal of the occupation forces be set and guaranteed by the United Nations," the official said.

"If this happened, the association will call on other parties who declared the boycott to participate in the elections," the spokesman said, adding that ending the boycott doesn't necessarily mean that the group would take part in the vote.

Sunni officials who attended the meeting said that it was fruitful "because the Americans now know who has a sway on the Iraqi streets. They now know where to go to and who to talk to."

"Exchange of views"

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, Bob Callahan, confirmed the news, saying that a senior unidentified embassy official in Iraq met with leaders of the Sunni Arab community to persuade them to participate in Iraq's national elections, to be held by the end of the month.

Callahan said that the meeting was an "exchange of views", but he didn't elaborate. He added that John Negroponte, the U.S. Ambassador in Iraq, didn't attend the meeting.

However, it is almost impossible that the United States agrees to provide a timetable for withdrawing the occupation forces.

Last month, Sunni leaders decided to boycott the polls and demanded its postponement because of the escalating violence across the country.

Also some U.S. officials warned that a low turnout could affect the election's credibility.

However, the Bush administration and Iraq's interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi insist that the polls be held as scheduled despite deteriorating security conditions.

U.S. plans undercut Iraq's poll

Meanwhile, U.S. administration and UN officials said that the White House is haunted by some tough decisions it made regarding the formation of Iraq's political system and the legitimacy of the elections.

According to the officials, the main plan was to set up a nationwide poll for a national assembly, rather than elections by districts and provinces. With the growing resistance across Iraq's Sunni Arab areas, it now looks like fewer Sunnis will cast their ballots, affecting the balance of the legislature and raising fears about the legitimacy of the poll.

The officials said that this decision was taken because the U.S. wanted the election to be held as scheduled and that there was no time to conduct a comprehensive census. But now, with the bold resistance and at least 7,000 candidates competing for the 257 seats nationwide, the drawbacks of the current scheme surfaced, according to American, Iraqi and UN officials.

They said that the expected low turnout in many Sunni areas will reduce the chances of popular Sunni candidates. They explained that this problem discourages Sunnis from participating in the vote and that this could easily reinforce the Sunnis' alienation from the Shiite majority.

Thus the elections, which are aimed at uniting and stabilizing Iraq, could have the opposite result, mainly because of the way it has been planned.

"It was well-intentioned, but it was a mistake," said Larry Diamond, a former consultant who is now a top fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

"It's clear now that one of the major concerns motivating the Sunni boycott is their fear that they'll wind up severely underrepresented under this system." He added.

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