Sunni Iraqis announce political coalition
Sunni mosques closing for 3 days to protest violence against clerics
BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Sunni Arabs flexed their weakened political muscles, announcing Saturday the establishment of a nationwide coalition representing their religious community as they begin a three-day, mosque-closing protest.
In another development, the Financial Times, citing Iraq's foreign minister, said an international conference on Iraq will be held in June in Brussels, Belgium.
The British newspaper reported Hoshyar Zebari as saying the meeting would help Iraq develop a constitution, spark foreign donations and improve the development of security forces.
The announcement of a Sunni Arab political group, at a Baghdad meeting, comes during a lull in the spectacular violence that erupted after the transitional government was formed in late April.
Sunni Arabs represent a minority in the Iraqi population -- 20 percent of the more than 26 million Iraqis -- but held the reins of power during Saddam Hussein's regime.
Since the Iraqi leader was overthrown, Shiite Arabs -- 60 percent of the population -- and Kurds have gained power and the Sunni Arabs have been on the margins of the new democracy.
Officials think the insurgency is primarily made up of Sunnis.
The three-day closing of the Sunni mosques was announced earlier this week by religious leaders, who regard the gesture as a loud-and-clear protest against the violence endured by Sunni clerics.
A U.S. official, speaking to reporters, said Americans are "concerned but not panicked" about the sectarian tensions.
"We are urging restraint, prudence and national unity," said the official, who pointed out that "Iraqis are looking for ways to put a brake on this."
In referring to both Shiite and Sunni Arabs, the official said "they have peered over the edge and decided that's not where they want to go" and emphasized that both Sunni and Shiite political figures recently have increased communication.
Sunni group a cross-section
The Sunni Arab coalition comprises tribal leaders, clerics and other officials. One of the major groups to join the effort is the Association of Muslim Scholars.
According to the GlobalSecurity.org Web site, the association was created after the fall of Saddam Hussein and is the highest Sunni authority in Iraq.
The association called Saturday for Interior Minister Baqir Jabbur and Defense Minister Sadoun al-Dulami to resign.
Jabbur is a member of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a powerful Shiite group that once had a militia called the Badr Brigade, which Sunni Arabs blame for attacking their followers over the years.
The brigade has changed its name to the Badr Organization and said it is no longer a militia.
The Sunnis are upset over arrests of religious leaders and people at mosques. Earlier this week, Iraq's new defense minister ordered a halt in raids on mosques.
In the past, the U.S. military has said insurgents have used mosques as places to launch attacks and store weapons.
The Association of Muslim Scholars said it cannot be silent "toward the criminal and inhumane actions which both ministries of Interior and Defense and other collaborating parties [condone], and the association holds the transitional government responsible for the results of these actions."
"These actions are considered to be terrorism carried out by the government and its security forces, which will increase terrorism and make the situation more difficult."
"Based upon such, the association demands the resignation of both the Minister of Interior and Defense for their full responsibility of inhumane actions that their security forces have committed."
Jabbur was asked at a news conference about a demand from the Sunni Arab meeting that he resign.
Jabbur rejected the claims that the government was involved in the killings of Sunni religious figures and said "nobody has the right to call for the resignation of a minister. Only the parliament has this right."
Jabbur referred to the low turnout of Sunni Arabs in the January 30 elections for a transitional national assembly.
"Those who did not vote have no right to ask a minister to resign," he said. "The parliament is the only party which has the right to ask a minister to resign."
The Shiite-dominated government has been making an effort to bring Sunni Arabs into the political process and the all-important writing of a constitution.
A Western diplomat conceded that Jabbur's appointment "caused a lot of people in the Sunni community to ask what is happening" because of the interior minister's ties to SCIRI, the group that once was affiliated with the Badr Brigade.
Also, the diplomat said, "we have seen allegations of Iraqi security forces participating in acts of sectarian violence. We take these allegations seriously. We are checking into them and taking to the Iraqi government about them.
"We cannot say from the evidence that we have seen that any Iraqi security forces were involved in any of the killings," the diplomat said
CNN's Enes Dulami and Kevin Flower contributed to this report.