BAGHDAD, Iraq – Battered by their fight against the Americans and upstaged by Shiites and Kurds, some Sunni Arabs (search) are scrambling to find a voice for their community after its fortunes were reversed under the U.S.-led occupation.
Many Sunni Arab Muslims — a dominant minority under Saddam Hussein's ousted regime — complain they are being squeezed out as the U.S.-led coalition prepares to transfer power back to Iraqis and that some of their leaders have been reluctant to try to participate in a political system they feel is stacked against them.
The Association for Muslim Scholars (search) is tapping leaders and trying to raise awareness about the political process among Arab Sunnis. It's not an easy task.
"Where are the political parties? Where are the political leaders? They're in a bad situation," said Sheik Mohammed al-Faidhy (search), the association's spokesman. "In the past, they were not allowed to speak up and now they feel targeted from different directions."
Sunnis were among the staunchest opponents of holding elections before the June 30 deadline for transferring power to the Iraqis, a demand of the country's Shiites eager to translate their numbers into political power.
The United Nations ruled that holding elections before the deadline was impossible. But with many Iraqis pressing for elections as early as the end of this year, the Sunnis know they have to prepare.
Saddam's government was dominated by Sunni Arabs and harshly repressed the country's Shiite majority and the Kurds, most of whom also are Sunni but not Arab. But al-Faidhy challenges the widely held belief that Sunnis were favored under Saddam.
"The former regime left us with no political character and no leadership. Whenever we had a prominent figure ... he and his base of support would be eliminated," he said. "That's why the Sunnis are faced with a frightening vacuum while the Shiite brothers have tens of parties."
He said things only got worse after Saddam was toppled in April.
Sunnis — concentrated in Baghdad and a region to the north and west of the capital — have been in the forefront of the insurgency against U.S. forces, a battle they consider an attempt to get rid of a hated, non-Muslim and foreign occupier.
As a result, cities and villages in the region have faced the main force of the occupation, with residents shaken by raids and other violence.
"There's a feeling that any Sunni who would rise to prominence might be reported on and they (the Americans) would take him to prison on the pretext that he belonged to the former regime," al-Faidhy said.
The association found several Sunni figures too scared to venture into politics under the U.S. occupation, he said. "How do you want us to get into politics when we're targeted by the super power?" he said his group was told.
"We have many problems with the Americans, so our situation has deteriorated," said Belal Abdullah, a 20-year-old student. "The Shiites don't resist like the Sunnis do," he added as the faithful streamed out of Abu Hanifa, Baghdad's largest Sunni mosque.
Other worshippers lamented the absence of a popular and powerful figure to rally around. "The Quran is our leader," one man in the crowd told them. They nodded in agreement.
Unlike most Shiites — who believe in strictly following the opinions of their religious authorities, making it easy for the clergy to mobilize believers — most Sunnis accept no intermediaries between man and God. To Sunnis, the Quran and Sunna, the teachings of the prophet, are the ultimate authority.
When U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi (search) visited Iraq to determine whether elections were feasible before the U.S. deadline, the Association of Muslim Scholars invited several Sunni groups to make the case against early elections — pointing to the lack of security, absence of a census and their own unpreparedness.
The United Nations, the U.S.-run occupation authority and Iraqi politicians are exploring how to form an interim government.
The United States has said it would prefer expanding the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council to include more Sunnis and other groups to enhance the body's legitimacy among Iraq's 25 million people.
Abdullah, the student, said he had listened to a sermon where the cleric urged worshippers to cast ballots when the time comes.
"He said it would be haram (sinful) if we don't cast our votes. It's also haram to vote for communists. Only an Islamic party represents Sunnis," he said.
Al-Faidhy said his organization would continue to contact politicians, use the media and ask clerics to mobilize the people.
Ayad al-Samerai, an official of the Iraqi Islamic Party (search), which has a seat in the Governing Council, said the party also was using its network of clerics to spread the word on the importance of participating in elections. They also follow local elections across the country and keep an eye on any foul play.
Sunni Governing Council member, Naseer Kamel al-Chaderchi, said campaigning should be for an ideology, like democracy — not along religious lines. Dismissing the urgency, he said it was too early to prepare for a vote since no date has been set.