With three months left before a landmark election, a group of hard-line Sunni Muslim clerics may hold the key to Iraq's future. \nThe Association of Muslim Scholars, created only 18 months ago but now the most influential representative of Iraq's Sunni Arabs, is threatening to boycott the January balloting if US and Iraqi troops storm the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah. \nA large-scale boycott by the powerful Sunni Arabs -- who make up 15 percent to 20 percent of Iraq's nearly 26 million people and are spearheading an increasingly vicious insurgency -- would be disastrous for the vote's credibility and may push Iraq into even deeper disarray. \nThe association, which boasts an active membership of 3,000 clerics nationwide, has hardened its stance against the US presence in Iraq recently as US warplanes stage almost daily raids against suspected militant safehouses in Fallujah. \nSheik Abdul-Salam al-Kobeisi, a senior association official, said the group would call for a boycott if it determines the vote would prolong the US presence in the country. \n"When we do, we will reject the elections, issue an edict declaring it illegitimate and not accept its results," he told The Associated Press. "We are capable of doing this, both in the so-called Sunni triangle and beyond." \nThe interim Iraqi government and its US backers see the vote as a crucial step toward democratic rule in Iraq. It also is a major plank in Washington's exit strategy from Iraq, where it maintains about 140,000 troops. \nIn the election, which is supposed to be held by Jan. 31, Iraqis will select a 275-member assembly whose main task will be to draft a constitution. If adopted, it will be the foundation for a second election to be held by Dec. 15 next year. \nThe Sunni association, which is suspected of maintaining links with some insurgent groups, has long been a staunch critic of the US presence in Iraq and of the US-backed interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi. \nIt has, however, been careful not to publicly condone armed resistance against US or Iraqi forces. Although no boycott call has been issued, al-Kobeisi hinted Saturday that the decision to oppose the ballot has already been made. \n``Certainly, we have washed our hands of this election,'' he told AP. ``Frankly, the association believes the election is a ploy to allow the Americans to stay.'' \nA boycott call by the clerics would have resonance among Iraq's Sunni Arabs, who are angry and frustrated over the loss of power they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein. Many fear domination by the long-oppressed Shiite majority. \nSome Iraqi experts question whether a Sunni boycott would be universal. Nazim al-Jassour, a political scientist from Baghdad University, noted that some Shiite-led political parties, like Allawi's Iraq National Accord, have many secular Sunni members. \nAl-Jassour, however, said the association has both the means and the support to raise doubts about the credibility of the election. \nAs expected, Iraq's Shiites -- about 60 percent of the population -- are embracing the election, encouraged by their clerics who see the ballot as an opportunity for power. A senior aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani -- Iraq's top Shiite cleric -- told worshippers in Karbala on Friday that failure to vote would be ``sinful.''
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