Sunni Group Asks U.S. for Timetable

Iraq's most influential Sunni (search) group will abandon its call for a boycott of Jan. 30 elections if the United States gives a timetable for withdrawing multinational forces, a spokesman for the group said Sunday.

Members of the powerful Association of Muslim Scholars (search) relayed their request to a senior U.S. embassy official at a meeting Saturday, the Sunni official said on condition of anonymity.

The meeting was confirmed Saturday by U.S. Embassy spokesman Bob Callahan, who said an unnamed senior embassy official in Iraq met with leading association members in an effort to persuade them to participate in the landmark election for a constitutional assembly.

Callahan described the meeting as an "exchange of views" but would not elaborate. He said U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte was not present.

It is extremely unlikely the United States would consider giving a timetable for a withdrawal.

In the election -- the first democratic vote in Iraq since the country was formed in 1932 -- the Sunnis are certain to lose their dominance to the Shiites, who comprise 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people.

Sunni leaders have urged that the vote be postponed, largely because areas of Iraq where they dominate are far too restive for preparations to begin.

The United States insists on holding the vote as planned and strongly opposes a postponement. But some American officials have acknowledged that a low turnout could jeopardize the vote's credibility.

The Sunni official said the U.S. Embassy initiated the meeting, and the association was represented by its chief, Sheik 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 Sunni official said, adding that an end to the boycott did not necessarily mean the association itself would participate.

The Sunni officials said the meeting with the American diplomat 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."