BAGHDAD, Iraq – The American-led offensive in Fallujah touched off political turmoil Tuesday as prominent Sunni Muslim clerics and politicians condemned the operation.

They lambasted the interim Iraqi government and urged a boycott of national elections scheduled for January, which could jeopardize the elections’ success.

The Iraqi Islamic Party, the country’s most influential Sunni political group, announced its withdrawal from the government. To date, it has supported the political process by sending members to join the U.S.-appointed Governing Council and its successor, the interim administration of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

“From today, we have nothing to do with this government,” said Iyad al-Samurraie, deputy secretary general of the Iraqi Islamic Party. “We don’t want to take the responsibility of shedding Iraqi blood without any legal excuse.”

Top Sunni clerics demanded a boycott of the elections over the Fallujah operation, which involves thousands of American troops blasting their way through Iraq’s rebel-held Sunni heartland.

U.S. and Iraqi officials are concerned that a Sunni boycott of the elections could undermine their legitimacy. Sunnis, who dominated Saddam Hussein’s regime, make up about 35 percent of the country.

Allawi, a secular Shiite Muslim, sought to counter the upheaval by courting key Sunni tribesmen and urging Fallujah rebels to lay down their arms to “spare the rest of the city from the military confrontation.”

Major Shiite political parties remain solidly behind elections, which they expect to sweep with a slate of candidates who appeal to Iraq’s Shiite majority.

Walid al-Hilli of the Dawa Party said a Sunni boycott wouldn’t spell the end of elections.

“For anyone who says he wants to boycott elections, what is the alternative?” al-Hilli asked. “Resisting the multinational forces is not good because then they will ask for more forces to come to Iraq and this will be a conflict, a never-ending struggle.”

Iraqi Islamic Party members criticized Allawi’s government as “foolish.” They said they planned to stay in politics, though not in concert with American-led efforts or Allawi’s leadership. Several other Sunni organizations already have registered to be on the ballot in late January, said Farid Ayar of the independent Iraqi Electoral Commission.

“This is one of the faces of democracy. We can’t force any party or group to participate in the process,” Ayar said.

Iraqi Islamic Party officials also announced that the party had severed ties with Hajim al-Hassani, a well-known party member who refused to resign from his post as Allawi’s minister of minerals and industry. In a phone interview, Hassani said his former allies’ decision was misguided and served only to divide the embattled nation further.

“I believe the withdrawal is wrong,” he said. “Iraq needs all its people to impose security and stability. The withdrawal will accomplish nothing. How can a sovereign government assert its authority if it allows no-go zones? No government in the world can accept regions within its borders to go out of control.”

Later Tuesday, the Association of Muslim Scholars called for Iraqis to boycott elections described as being held “over the corpses of those killed in Fallujah, and the blood of the wounded.”

“The scholars of Iraq place full legal responsibility on Iyad Allawi for the genocide Fallujah is exposed to at the hands of occupation forces and a bunch of Iraqi National Guardsmen who cooperate with them,” association director Sheik Hareth al-Dhari said in a statement aired throughout the Islamic world on satellite television. His organization claims to represent more than 3,000 of Iraq’s Sunni mosques.

Allawi played down the criticism, saying in a statement that “with the exception of a few extremists, the Iraqi people are fully behind the government’s efforts to restore law and order, and to build the necessary security to hold elections in Iraq.”

He added that letters of support from Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province, home to the besieged towns of Fallujah and Ramadi, would be made public soon.

However, a Sunni leader from Anbar’s most powerful tribe confronted Allawi on Tuesday during a meeting with clerics over iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daylight fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Adnan Mohammed al-Dulaimi, the Sunni department chief of the Religious Affairs Ministry, implored Allawi to cease fighting for a few hours in order to evacuate the wounded.

“There are civilians getting killed in Fallujah. You are responsible for their lives in front of God,” al-Dulaimi said.

Allawi replied that alternatives to military force had been exhausted before the operation began and the government had nothing against civilians in Fallujah.

“This is not the time to discuss this issue,” Allawi said, taking al-Dulaimi’s hand. “Let’s go have our iftar.”

(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Huda Ahmed and Yasser Salihee contributed to this report.)

(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-11-09-04 1737EST

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