BAGHDAD, Iraq – Sunni groups joined forces Saturday to form a political and religious organization to represent the minority as it seeks to gain influence in Iraq's new Shiite-dominated government amid rising sectarian tensions.
The organization's first act was to call for the immediate resignation of Shiite Interior Minister Bayan Jabr (search), as many Sunni Arabs blame Shiite-dominated security and defense forces for complicity in the recent killings of numerous Sunni clerics.
Jabr denied allegations that the government had anything to do with the killing of Sunni clerics and dismissed calls to resign.
"No one has the right to call for the resignation of a minister, only parliament can do that. Those who didn't get one vote have no right to ask," he said, referring to the fact that many Sunnis stayed away from Jan. 30 elections either in protest or fear of attacks.
In violence Saturday, eight members of an elite Interior Ministry force known as the Wolf Brigade (search) were killed in a pre-dawn ambush on their 20-vehicle convoy in downtown Beiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, police 1st Lt. Nadar Adil said. The Wolf Brigade is one of the groups implicated by the Sunnis in the killings of their clerics.
Two U.S. Army Apache attack helicopters later arrived on the scene and began firing their guns at targets near the ambush site, Associated Press Television News footage showed.
The decision to create the new group was made by more than 1,000 representatives of Sunni tribes, political parties and religious leaders gathered in Baghdad. The organization, which doesn't yet have a name, will first open an office in Baghdad, then branch out across the nation.
"The decisions taken by this body will be shared by all Sunnis parties and movements, Islamists, independents, merchants, military officers, heads of tribes and workers," said Adnan al-Duleimi (search), the head of the Sunni Endowment.
The charitable organization was one of three main Sunni groups to back the formation of the new organization. The others were the influential Association of Muslim Scholars and the Iraqi Islamic Party.
The new Sunni organization could help re-empower the minority, which is barely represented in the 275-seat parliament and has just six posts in the 37-member Cabinet. New elections are to be held in December after Iraq drafts a new constitution, which has to first be approved in a nationwide referendum.
The announcement came as a British tabloid published more revealing photographs of Saddam Hussein in U.S. custody on Saturday, a day after it ran a front-page picture of the ousted Iraqi leader naked except for his underwear.
The new pictures in The Sun included one of Saddam seen through barbed wire wearing a white robe-like garment, and another of Ali Hassan al-Majid (search), better known as "Chemical Ali" in a bathrobe and holding a towel.
The newspaper also ran pictures of Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash (search), a biotech researcher dubbed "Mrs. Anthrax," who got her nickname for her alleged role in trying to develop bio-weapons for Saddam.
The Sun said the photos were provided by a U.S. military official it did not identify who hoped their release would deal a "body blow" to the insurgency.
The U.S. military condemned their publication and ordered an investigation of how the pictures were leaked. Some Iraqis expressed anger, but President Bush said he did not think the images would incite further anti-American sentiment.
Some Iraqis called the photos the latest in a series of insults to Arabs and Muslims. Others said the humiliation is what the 68-year-old former dictator deserved.
Sectarian tension has been high throughout the country and Sunni extremists are believed to be driving Iraq's relentless insurgency, with more than 520 people killed since Iraq's Shiite-led government was announced April 28.
Sunnis dominated under Saddam's Baathist regime but make up just 15 percent to 20 percent of Iraq's 26 million people and most stayed away from the polls that led to the nation's first democratically elected government.
Shiites, who comprise 60 percent of the population, emerged from the Jan. 30 elections with the biggest bloc in the National Assembly. They have allied with Kurds while seeking to include Sunnis in the government.
The threat of civil war mixed with anti-American demonstrations on Friday, particularly in the southern Shiite heartland — where more 10,000 protesters heeded a call by anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to step on and drive over American and Israeli flags painted on roads outside mosques after several of his followers were detained.
Al-Sadr launched two uprisings against U.S. forces in Baghdad and Najaf in April and August last year, then went into hiding before surfacing on Monday to demand that U.S.-led forces withdraw from Iraq.
Clashes broke out in Nasiriyah Friday, where a gunfight between al-Sadr supporters and guards protecting a local provincial governor's office left 17 people wounded.
Nasiriyah governor Aziz Kadhim Alwan warned he would not allow such incidents to occur again.
"We give the army forces the authority to defend themselves and to arrest armed members of any militia or party," he said Saturday.
Sunnis also staged anti-American demonstrations Friday but focused most of their protest on the majority Shiites.
"We condemn raids and detention done under the cover of the law against imams and mosques. We demand an independent committee be formed to verify if detainees were killed or tortured and demand the resignation of the interior minister," the Sunnis said in a statement announcing the formation of their organization.
The Association of Muslim Scholars recently blamed a prominent Shiite militia, the Badr Brigades, of targeting Sunni religious leaders.
The government has denied involvement in the killings but said some attackers have worn Iraqi army uniforms when seizing their victims and declared Iraqi troops can no longer enter mosques, churches or universities.
A representative of the influential Shiite Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq said it was important for Sunnis to gain a voice.
"This will be the body to refer to in any future negotiations if necessary with Sunnis because it will represent the majority of Sunnis," Jawad Mohammed Taqi said.