SADDAM HUSSEIN loyalists who violently opposed January elections have made an about-face as Thursday’s polls near, urging fellow Sunni Arabs to vote and warning Al Qaeda militants not to attack.
In a move unthinkable in the bloody run-up to the last election, guerrillas in the western insurgent heartland of Anbar province say they are even prepared to protect voting stations from fighters loyal to Abu Mussab Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Graffiti calling for holy war is now hard to find.
Instead, election campaign posters dominate buildings in the rebel strongholds of Ramadi and nearby Fallujah, where Sunnis staged a boycott or were too scared to vote last time around.
“We want to see a nationalist government that will have a balance of interests. So our Sunni brothers will be safe when they vote,” said Fallujah resident Ali Mahmoud, a former army officer and rocket specialist under Saddam’s Baath Party.
“Sunnis should vote to make political gains. We have sent leaflets telling Al Qaeda that they will face us if they attack voters.” The shift is encouraging for Washington, which hopes to draw Sunni Arabs into peaceful politics in order to defuse the insurgency.
The Baathist warning to Al Qaeda raises the possibility of a wider rift between secular Saddam loyalists and fundamentalist militants, who have been cooperating in their efforts to drive out US forces.
But it is far too early to suggest any breakthroughs will ease insurgent violence that has killed thousands.
Some insurgent leaders appear to be setting conditions for Sunni voters, who will choose from among 231 political parties and coalitions for a parliament that will appoint the first full-term government in post-war Iraq.
Grudging backing for polls
Former Baathists who have embraced militant Islam, like Jassim Abu Bakr, are still fiercely opposed to US-backed leaders and say any Sunni politicians who move too close to them will lose their support.
“We are telling Sunnis that they have to vote for nationalist parties and even if they win we will be watching very closely to keep them in line,” said the Fallujah militant, 28.
In Fallujah, renowned as Iraq’s “City of Mosques,” Sunni Muslim spiritual leaders made clear there would be no repeat of the boycott of January’s election which left their minority angrily marginalised.
Fiery speeches delivered in Friday prayers have been toned down, with increasing calls for Sunnis to vote.
Iraq’s election commission said on Sunday there would be 154 polling stations open in Anbar next Thursday, far more than in the election in January. Eighty-four of them will be in Fallujah and the surrounding area, it said.
Most election posters back two Sunni politicians, Saleh Mutlak and Adnan Duliami. Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite and former prime minister who ordered a US-led offensive that devastated Fallujah last year, has some appeal, insurgents said.
The influential Sunni Muslim Scholars Association urged their large community to boycott the “illegal” polls in January.
Nearly one year on, the group has so far been officially neutral but some of its members have called participation in the polls a “religious duty.”
Ramadi remains a trouble spot. Just a few days ago US helicopters were exchanging fire with determined insurgents.
But Saddam loyalists have turned against Zarqawi, whose fighters travel to Iraq from across the Arab world to blow themselves up in a bid to spark sectarian civil war.
“Zarqawi is an American, Israeli and Iranian agent who is trying to keep our country unstable so that the Sunnis will keep facing occupation,” said a Baathist insurgent leader who would give his name only as Abu Abdullah.