BAGHDAD, Iraq — With three months left before a landmark election, a group of hard-line Sunni Muslim clerics may hold the key to Iraq's future.
The 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 U.S. and Iraqi troops storm the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.
A 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.
The association, which boasts an active membership of 3,000 clerics nationwide, has hardened its stance against the U.S. presence in Iraq recently as U.S. warplanes stage almost daily raids against suspected militant safe houses in Fallujah.
Sheik Abdul-Salam al-Kobeisi, a senior association official, said the group would call for a boycott if it determines the vote would prolong the American presence in the war-torn country.
"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."
The interim Iraqi government and its U.S. 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.
In 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, 2005.
The Sunni association, which is suspected of maintaining links with some insurgent groups, has long been a staunch critic of the American presence in Iraq and of the U.S.-backed interim government of Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
It has, however, been careful not to publicly condone armed resistance against American 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.
"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."
A 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 Sunnis fear domination by the long-oppressed Shiite majority.
Some 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.
Al-Jassour, however, said the association has both the means and the support to raise doubts about the credibility of the election.
As 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."
An effective boycott also would deepen the Sunni-Shiite divide, fueling the insurgency and straining the country's fragile ethnic and racial fabric.
The boycott threat comes at a time when the association and Allawi's government are at odds over several issues, including detention of some of its members. The latest arrest occurred Friday, when American troops raided the Baghdad home of senior member Sheik Abdul-Sattar Abdul-Jabbar, taking him and two of his sons into custody.
Al-Kobeisi said 72 association officials are in U.S. or Iraqi government custody.
Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, a Kurd, defended the arrests, telling reporters that those who incite violence "will be punished, whoever he might be."
The association also has opposed Allawi's threats to use force against Fallujah if community leaders do not hand over Jordanian-born terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and allow government troops to take control of the city.
The association and representatives from the city insist al-Zarqawi, who has carried out numerous car bombings and beheadings of foreign hostages, isn't in the city.
The association has been vehemently anti-American since it was organized shortly after Saddam's ouster last year. On occasion, it has displayed solidarity with Muqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric whose supporters fought American forces in two revolts so far this year.
Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian expert on militant Islamic groups, believes the association has an agenda similar to the national liberation movements of the 1950s and 1960s in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.
"Their only message seems to be the expulsion of foreign troops," he said from Cairo.
Some Iraqis, however, believe the association is functioning like the political wing of a guerrilla army.