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Iraqi Sunnis eager to move fight to ballot box

  • Story Highlights
  • Sunnis say they made mistake by sitting out 2005 election
  • They look forward to "the battle of the fingers" at this year's elections
  • Provincial elections are seen as key in empowering Iraqis
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From Morgan Neill
CNN
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BALAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Mullah Nadhim preached open war on U.S. troops for years.

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In Iraq, voters' fingers are dipped in ink so they can't vote multiple times.

He and many other Sunni Muslims in Iraq shunned elections and fought instead with roadside bombs and rocket-propelled grenades.

With provincial elections scheduled for autumn, however, Nadhim and other Sunnis say, they made a mistake by sitting out the elections in January 2005. Their absence at the polls, they say, resulted in less political power for Sunnis and more for Shiite Muslims and Kurds.

Some Sunnis say they plan to put down their weapons and instead join "the battle of the fingers," a phrase for elections that draws its name from the practice of dipping voters' fingers in ink so they can't vote a second time.

"At least 80 percent of the Sunnis believe that the battle of the finger is more important, more powerful than the battle of weapons and RPGs," Nadhim said.

More than 370 former Sunni insurgents near Balad, 42 miles (68 kilometers) north of Baghdad, recently signed a pledge to stop attacking U.S. and Iraqi security forces.

"You don't shoot us anymore," one U.S. soldier said. "OK?"

American soldiers fingerprinted them and took retinal scans, saying they would detain "most-wanted" militants but releasing most others. Men who are facing charges in the Iraqi legal system were given dates to appear in court.

No one suggests that the elections will end violence in Balad, but it's a step in the right direction in the eyes of the U.S. military and Iraqi government.

Provincial elections are seen as key in empowering Iraqis at the grass-roots level and creating a political system that includes those who have been alienated from power. The Bush administration has set provincial elections as one of its benchmarks to foster political reconciliation in Iraq.

"On the political front, Iraq has seen bottom-up progress as tribes and other groups in the provinces who fought terror are now turning to rebuilding local political structures and taking charge of their own affairs," President Bush said recently.

Iraqi authorities originally hoped to hold the elections by October 1. Yet details of the vote, including when it is to be held, are still being debated between Iraq's main political blocs.

Gen. David Petraeus, the outgoing top U.S. military commander in Iraq, told Congress two weeks ago that provincial elections probably will happen in November.

Whatever the date, one former member of the Ansar al Sunna militant group probably will be among those casting ballots. He said that spurning the last elections in favor of violence left Sunnis in Balad largely powerless.

"Right now, everything is being run by the Shiites," he said. "God willing, this time it will be better than before."

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