RAMADI, Iraq – Here in the birthplace of Iraq’s insurgency and its later turnabout against al-Qaida, Sunni Arabs are pushing to get out the vote in an election they see as their best hope of restoring some of their lost power. But they are gloomy over their chances of succeeding.

They say what should have been an open vote has been tainted after hundreds of their candidates were banned from the ballot. More broadly, they fear the nation’s Shiite majority will bring to power hard-line religious parties who will only solidify Iraq’s sectarian divisions.

Far from bringing peace, the March 7 parliamentary elections could bring disputes over the results that could undo reconciliation efforts between Sunnis and Shiites, or provoke a new wave of attacks.

“If they feel their rights have been robbed, it might lead to sectarian violence,” Anbar province First Deputy Gov. Hikmat Jasim Zaidan, said of Sunnis in an interview in Ramadi, the region’s capital.

“In the West, when your right is robbed, you go to the courts. But in Iraq, it’s different — when your right is robbed, (you) resort to violence,” he said.

Once Iraq’s ruling elite under Saddam Hussein, Sunnis lost much of their power after the U.S. invasion toppled the leader. They then squandered what little they had left by boycotting January 2005 parliamentary elections, which sealed the control of Shiite parties in Baghdad. By the time they took part in a second election that December, the Sunni insurgency was already in full swing, poisoning relations with Shiites and eventually bringing the country to the brink of civil war.

The good news this time — for Sunni leaders and for U.S. officials trying to boost reconciliation — is that Sunnis appear to be shrugging off brief talk of a boycott after the candidates ban.

Campaign posters and billboards cover Ramadi’s downtown market, and political ads have saturated the al-Anbar satellite TV channel. A rally last week was held despite a suicide bombing nearby a day earlier that killed two police officers.

Sunni Arabs make up about 20 percent of Iraq’s estimated population of 28 million. Anbar province is their stronghold, stretching west from Baghdad to the borders with Syria and Jordan. About 800,000 Sunnis are registered to vote in Anbar, a desert expanse that is a little smaller than New York state.

Anbar Gov. Qasim al-Fahadawi said Tuesday he defied doctors’ orders to come home from San Antonio, Texas, and encourage Sunnis to vote. In Texas, he underwent leg surgery and was outfitted for a prosthetic arm after a December suicide bomb attack on his Ramadi office.

“I want Anbar to succeed in the election,” he said. While the candidates blacklist “put us in a very difficult situation, we are trying to persuade the people that if they don’t go to the elections, they will lose more.”

At the Ramadi home of one candidate last week, tribal chiefs gathered to hash out ways to drum up Sunni turnout.

Sheik Ali Kadhem Ali of Fallujah said voters should be reminded of how Sunnis rose up against al-Qaida in Anbar, which had been the heartland of the insurgency and was once considered Iraq’s most dangerous province.

Those Sons of Iraq, or Sahwa, fighters were the genesis of a nationwide campaign in 2005-06 that is generally credited with turning the tide in the war. The turnaround has boosted Sunni sentiment that they deserve a say in decision-making in Baghdad.


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