WASHINGTON - The Bush administration, worried that a Sunni Muslim boycott could turn Iraq's election Jan. 30 into a fiasco, has launched a major diplomatic and political campaign to encourage Sunnis to vote, including support for a clandestine effort to attract leaders of the Iraqi insurgency to the political process.
At the same time, foreseeing an election in which high turnout among Shiite Muslims and ethnic Kurds could leave Sunni Arabs feeling marginalized, the Bush administration has signaled that it would support a quota system to guarantee Sunni politicians a share of seats in the new parliament and Cabinet.
U.S. officials say they have reason to be increasingly optimistic that a significant number of Sunni Arabs will vote in the election, which will determine the members of a national assembly that will serve as Iraq's new government and write a new constitution.
But they acknowledge that turnout among Sunnis is likely to be significantly lower than among Shiite Muslims and ethnic Kurds, because of anti-government sentiment and violence in areas dominated by the Sunni-led insurgency.
The result, some officials fear, could be an even deeper divide between the majority Shiite Muslims, who are almost certain to dominate the new government, and the Sunni minority that enjoyed elite status under dictator Saddam Hussein and has become the base of support for the anti-American insurgency.
"We are doing everything we can ... to encourage maximum Sunni participation in the election," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said last week. "If we get a fairly decent Sunni turnout, ... that would be good for the country and good for the process. If it was nobody at all, I think that would be problematic. But I don't expect it to be nobody at all."
A poll released Friday by the International Republican Institute, an arm of the Republican Party that promotes democracy, found that 84 percent of Iraqis said they planned to vote in the election, including 71 percent who said they "strongly intend" to vote. But there was a wide range in responses from different regions. In Sunni-dominated western Iraq, 53 percent said they intended to vote and fewer than 20 percent said they strongly intended to vote - compared with 90 percent or more in some Kurdish or Shiite areas who said they strongly intended to vote.
Several Sunni leaders appealed to the Bush administration and interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi last month to postpone the election, saying that Sunnis needed more time to organize political parties.
But Bush and Allawi rejected the plea. The U.S. administration felt that granting a delay would be seen as "awarding a victory to ... the insurgents," a State Department official said.
Instead, the administration says it is supporting efforts by Allawi to encourage Sunni participation, and has undertaken additional measures of its own, including blunt private warnings to Sunni leaders that a boycott could prove catastrophic for their community.
"The Sunnis would have to live with their own decisions if they boycott," one official said, summarizing the U.S. message. "Do they really want ... a civil war against a Shia population that outnumbers them three to one?"
There have been more subtle appeals as well, including efforts by the wealthy Sunni regimes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which are rumored to have offered financial support to Sunni politicians who agree to participate in the election.
At least partly because of those efforts, several major Sunni parties have submitted slates of candidates, including some parties that initially threatened to boycott the vote.
"An absence of Sunni candidates is no longer a problem," one official said.
At the same time, the Bush administration has quietly supported efforts by Allawi to open secret talks with leaders of the insurgency to try to woo them into the political process - despite an official U.S. policy against negotiating with the insurgents.
Powell stuck to the official hard line last week when he told reporters, "We will not talk with leaders of the insurgency. They're terrorist, they're murderers, and they have no interest in a free, fair election."
Although Powell ruled out direct U.S. negotiations, the secretary of state and the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, John D. Negroponte, have encouraged Allawi to pursue talks.
"Negroponte has essentially told [Allawi], 'It's your country. Speak with whom you think you need to. Just don't expect us to join those talks,'" an official said.
So far, Allawi's attempts to connect with the insurgents have met with no visible success and have been dismissed by some critics as little more than an election-season ploy. The prime minister held a highly publicized meeting this month with Sunni tribal leaders from Ramadi. But a second public meeting was scratched - partly for security reasons, but partly because Allawi could not persuade enough Sunnis to participate, a U.S. official said.
Allawi told reporters in Baghdad last week that he had met with Sunni leaders "on the periphery of the so-called resistance." He said he was making "a distinction between the terrorists and the insurgents, and we hope this will be the beginning of a divide which would help in bringing an end" to the combat in Iraq.
If Allawi succeeds in bringing insurgent leaders into the political process, it would open a new debate about amnesty for former rebels and reopen a bitter old debate over de-Baathification, the policy of locking high-ranking members of Hussein's Baath Party out of Iraq's new government. U.S. and Iraqi officials say Baathists are the main leaders of the insurgency.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.