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Iraq's Sunni Arabs Face Dilemma

Last Friday, two of the main mosques in Ramadi delivered conflicting sermons.

One called for a halt to the violence that has wracked this western Iraqi town for nearly two years.

The other demanded ceaseless resistance against the "atheist Americanoccupiers".

The loudspeakers of the Mosque of Mohammed the Prophet of God praised an initiative to bring a truce between guerrillas and US forces.

It said attacks on police "distorted the image of honourable resistance".

But at the Khaled Ibn al-Walid mosque the preacher had this message: "We will not end the occupation by co-operating with it . . . .

"The unity of our people will drive out the occupier, not politicians who constantly make compromises."

The split between the mosques mirrors a debate throughout Ramadi, and among Sunni Arabs in general, over whether or not to support continued armed resistance against the US armed forces.

On the national level, the dispute is mainly over to what extent Sunnis should participate in the political system.

Should they join the Iraqi government's army and police, and should they prepare to take part in drafting the constitution even if the country is under occupation?

Here, the question is more immediate how to stop the armed clashes, security cordons, mass arrests, and other facets of a war that has paralysed normal life.

Few in this heartland of Sunni religious conservatism dispute that it is Islamically legitimate to fight a foreign occupying force.

But many say the time is right to negotiate an end to the violence.

While local officials and tribal sheikhs have been coming up with peace plans almost from the beginning of the insurgency, those proposals have gathered strength since the January 30 elections.

However, convincing the guerrillas and their supporters is proving difficult.

The political atmosphere is considerably less tense than it was in the autumn, when guerrillas rose up in support of their embattled compatriots in the nearby town of Falluja.

Back then, local government virtually shut down, and the town centre witnessed frequent clashes between insurgents and US marines.

In the centre of town, where old urban families predominate and the provincial governor has his offices, Iraqi police stand guard and flyers condemn terrorism and the killing of fellow Iraqis.

But neither these flyers nor any police can be found on 17 Tammuz Street, close to the Khaled Ibn al-Walid mosque.

Saddam Hussein once bestowed houses here on his military officers and members of his ruling Ba'ath party.

The thoroughfare has since been dubbed "Resistance Street" after the ambushes that have taken place along is length.

The division between the two areas of the town surfaced in an emotional debate in the governorate council on Thursday, after governor Fasal al-Kuoud presented a proposal to reduce the violence in Ramadi.

Mr Kuoud's plan called for insurgents to stop attacking Iraqi government officials and to allow joint US-Iraq patrols into town, and to kick out "external forces" meaning non-Iraqi Islamist volunteers, considered more extreme than most of their Iraqi counterparts.

In exchange, the town's administration would press for the release of suspected insurgents held by the US army and for compensation for damage caused by US strikes.

They would ask that Iraqi soldiers in Ramadi be recruited locally, and that the US military lift its cordon around several areas of the town that are insurgent strongholds.

Tribal sheikhs, university professors and others stood up to praise a plan that they said would "end an intolerable situation".

But one speaker, a former brigadier-general who called himself "Abu Farouq" and claimed he spoke for other Ramadi military officers, angrily denounced it.

"Shall we allow Americans to keep peace in our towns, if they destroy houses and arrest the youth?" he asked.

"I do not want the Americans to participate in keeping the peace in our town, nor anywhere in Iraq," he added.

By Dhiya Rasan and Steve Negus

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