BAGHDAD -- Dozens of political organizations, many with largely Sunni Muslim members, announced Thursday that they would boycott elections planned for January as the government's leading political parties met in northern Iraq to discuss forming an alliance before the vote.
The groups' decision, announced by the influential Muslim Scholars Assn., was not a surprise, and its ultimate impact is difficult to gauge because many of the other organizations command little support. But it casts doubts over efforts by the U.S.-backed interim Iraqi government to ensure participation by Sunni Muslims in the elections. Without substantial Sunni involvement, any elected government would be fragile.
The boycott plan came on the same day leading members of the government talked about running on the same ticket, which would improve their chances of winning. They already have name recognition and political organizations that can help sell their message.
Thursday was the deadline for political parties to register with the Iraqi Electoral Commission, but there will be a two-day grace period for late filings in Baghdad. So far, the electoral commission has certified 80 political entities and 50 more have submitted applications and are awaiting approval, said Hussein Hindawi, the chairman.
Meanwhile, violence continued north of Baghdad in Mosul, where insurgents attacked the governor's house, killing a guard. Groups of armed men rampaged through some neighborhoods, executing young men working with Iraqi security forces.
In Baiji, home to Iraq's largest electricity plant about 100 miles south of Mosul, at least four Iraqis were killed in more fighting.
The Iraqi government and the U.S. military gave optimistic assessments of the continuing U.S.-led offensive in Fallouja although a U.S. general cautioned that the city was not yet "secure."
Fifty-one U.S. troops have been killed and 425 have been wounded in action since the operation to recapture the city from insurgents began Nov. 8, Marine Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler said. He said eight Iraqi troops had been killed and 43 wounded. About 1,200 insurgents had been killed, and U.S. forces have taken about 1,025 prisoners, he said. Some estimates put the insurgent death toll as high as 1,600.
"We feel right now that we have, as I mentioned, broken the back of the insurgency," Sattler said in a video conference outside Fallouja. The insurgents have lost their "means for command and control," he said.
But he also made it clear that heavy fighting against insurgents in Iraq was not yet over. "Those who may have gotten away … those who left early, the cowards that … fired this town up and left those behind to die … those individuals will be pursued…. We will stay hot after them until they are, in fact, captured, or possibly die in violent military action," he said.
The U.S. has a spotty record in its claims to have quelled the insurgency. Earlier this year, U.S. military officials estimated the number of insurgents at 5,000 even after it appeared that American troops had killed more than that number.
Sattler said U.S. troops had managed to stop insurgents from using Fallouja as a haven and forced them to scatter across Iraq.
The latter has seemed all too true in recent days as violence broke out in half a dozen places across largely Sunni areas.
U.S. troops clashed with heavily armed guerrillas in the western city of Ramadi on Thursday, according to local residents, who said the fighting occurred after insurgents targeted the troops with mortar rounds, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns. On Wednesday, large groups of guerrillas had taken to the streets of the city.
Mosul remained tense, despite signs this week that violence there was waning. In Zahara, an area north of the city, armed fighters set up checkpoints, searched cars and checked identification, looking for Iraqi police and national guardsmen. There were no U.S. troops or Iraqi forces on the streets.
At one checkpoint, the bodies of two men were sprawled on the street.
A witness, Hakeem Qassim, 23, described how militants shot a man who denied that he was an Iraqi police officer. The man was carrying a black plastic bag with a police uniform in it and they shot him, Qassim said. A few minutes later, a taxi came by, and militants shot the passenger, saying he was a national guard recruit. He too was shot.
The instability in Sunni areas of Iraq, which has led U.S. forces to pursue insurgents there, has left many Sunnis feeling that they are under siege.
But it was the attack in Fallouja that prompted the Muslim scholars group and others to decide to sit out the elections, said Harith Dhari, the organization's spokesman. The decision was made Wednesday after the groups met at Umm Qura Mosque in Baghdad, the scholars organization's headquarters.
"These elections will not represent the real will of the Iraqi people," Dhari said. "The election will be faked because there is no accurate way of counting the Iraqi population because of the lack of security."
The 46 groups that signed the boycott letter are mostly small. The exceptions include the scholars group, which is widely quoted and reaches hundreds of thousands of Iraqis through Sunni mosques whose imams are sympathetic to the group's position. The organizations approving the boycott include Turkmen and Christian groups as well as several women's organizations.
There are also at least two groups with significant Shiite Muslim memberships on the list, one affiliated with Sheik Jawad Khalisi, a cleric based in Kadhimiya, a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad, and another affiliated with Ayatollah Qassim Taee in Najaf. Both clerics have spoken out against the U.S. military presence, and Khalisi has close ties with several prominent Sunnis.
Dhari also repeated a widely held view that U.S. officials have "fixed" the election. Some Iraqis believe that they are being asked to participate in the elections so the Americans can say all Iraqis have a stake in the new government but that those who oppose the U.S. will be denied a fair share of power.
"We are sure that the results of the elections are already decided. They picked the people who will support them," Dhari said.
However, the leading Sunni party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, hopes to take part in the elections if some of its members' concerns are addressed.
"We are willing to participate in the elections if the security situation … and the intimidation of voters" can be dealt with, said Ayaed Sammurai, the deputy secretary-general of the party.
© 2004 Los Angeles Times