BAGHDAD — At the office of the federation of Iraqi tribes, the scene is something of a throwback to the Saddam Hussein days.
Along the walls sit more than a dozen mustachioed men with military bearing, several recognizable as former Baathist army and intelligence officers. At a big desk sits their leader. A request for a private interview is waved off -- we have no secrets, he says.
But instead of giving orders for battle as they might have in years past, the men this time are preparing for an altogether different kind of campaign. Most Sunni Arabs boycotted the parliamentary elections in January, but this week they will vote in large numbers, declares Hassan Zeidan, once a senior Baath Party general.
Will that mean an end to the Sunni-driven insurgency, believed to be led by former Baathist officers like the men staring grimly in this room?
No, is the immediate answer. "As long as our country is occupied, the resistance will continue." In other words, Sunni Arabs loyal to the old regime will vote, and they will keep fighting.
Angered by the continued presence of U.S. forces and what they see as unfair dominance of Iraq's military and police by the country's majority Shiites, many Sunnis hope to claim a greater share of political power. But many former Baathists among them see voting as a pragmatic move. It does not necessarily mean they are buying into the new political system, as U.S. officials insist.
On Thursday, Iraqis will choose their first permanent government since the U.S. invasion, putting into practice the constitution approved in October. It will be the third national vote in Iraq in less than a year, and in many ways the most important.
Many Sunnis have had a remarkable change of heart about election participation, although the influential Muslim Scholars Assn. continues to stand aloof from the process and the most radical segments of the insurgency -- die-hard Hussein loyalists and followers of Al Qaeda and Abu Musab Zarqawi -- continue to threaten violence.
U.S. officials have pointed out that 10 million people voted in the constitutional referendum, 2 million more than in the first election of a transitional parliament in January. The White House is counting on an even higher turnout this time, with significant Sunni numbers, as evidence that the U.S.-sponsored transition to democracy is working.
With calls for a troop withdrawal rising in the U.S., some also see in the election a possible turning point that would allow American and British forces to begin to pull out of Iraq with dignity next year.
But that possibility depends on whether the elections actually usher in a government that will have the backing of a broad spectrum of all of the main ethnic, regional and sectarian groups in Iraq.
So far, Sunnis who were the most loyal to Hussein, and who felt they had the most to lose in the new governing arrangement empowering Shiites and Kurds, have been the main holdouts against the new government.
Zeidan, 57, who has twice been detained and released by U.S. forces, has been barred from running as a candidate because of his Baathist affiliations. But that does not matter, he said. His son will be among the candidates on the slate of the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, one of the Sunni coalitions, along with other individuals deemed reliable.
"The candidates we nominated are all good, patriotic elements who aim to serve Iraq and the Iraqis," he said. And those barred from running, he said, "will lead the National Assembly from the outside."
Zeidan declined to predict how many seats his and other "patriotic" Sunni groups would win, but made it clear that he thought the number would be significant.
After the elections, he said, the Sunni groups would seek to enter into alliances to try to deny power to the current Shiite-led coalition under Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari. Possible allies, he said, include the Kurdish parties and the followers of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite who was once a Baathist.
He said that if elected, the Sunnis would press for an early U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and push for added constitutional changes to unify the country and reduce the chances that Iraq could break apart along ethnic and sectarian lines.
Zeidan expressed confidence that his vision would win wide backing.
"Believe me, whoever is supported by the Baathists in the next election will win, because more than 90% of the Iraqi people were Baathists," he said.
Sunni Arabs make up about 20% of the Iraqi population.
Western officials, pointing to fragmentation among Sunni Arabs, have been encouraging the Sunni parties. The officials have shown little anxiety that the newly emerged alliances may in some instances be standing in for the former Baathists. Sunni Arabs were the dominant group in the time of Saddam Hussein, but they are believed to be the majority in only three of Iraq's 18 provinces.