The Bush administration is talking to Iraqi leaders about guaranteeing Sunni Arabs a certain number of ministries or high-level jobs in the future Iraqi government if, as is widely...

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WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is talking to Iraqi leaders about guaranteeing Sunni Arabs a certain number of ministries or high-level jobs in the future Iraqi government if, as is widely predicted, Sunni candidates fail to do well in Iraq’s elections.

An even more-radical step, one that a Western diplomat said was raised already with an aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most-revered Shiite cleric, is the possibility of adding some of the top vote-getters among the Sunni candidates to the 275-member legislature, even if they lose to non-Sunni candidates.

Much of the violent insurgency is taking place in Sunni-dominated areas in the central part of the country, and some Sunni leaders have called for a boycott of the election. This has led to fears that large numbers of Sunnis will obey the call or be afraid to vote.

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The diplomat said even some Shiite politicians who are followers of al-Sistani are concerned that a Shiite election victory that effectively shuts Sunni Arabs out of power could alienate Sunnis and lead to more internal strife.

“You do the math,” said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a former adviser to the American occupation in Baghdad. “Iraq’s population is about 60 percent Shiite, 20 percent Sunni and 20 percent Kurds. But if Sunnis don’t vote, they could become only 5 percent of the electorate.”

If Sunnis are marginalized in that fashion, Diamond said, it could lead to further alienation, an increased insurgency and possibly a civil war, especially if the Kurdish and Shiite victors attempt to write a constitution that favors their interests over the Sunnis’.

The election is for a 275-member National Assembly, which will appoint a central government and draft a permanent constitution.

Parties and coalitions of parties have submitted slates of candidates for the nationwide election. There also are individual candidates. Each voter will have a single vote to cast.

The parties will receive seats in the National Assembly proportionate to their percentage of the vote, one seat for each 1/275th — about 36,000 if 10 million people vote — of the total vote the slate receives.

For example, if one party had a list of 50 candidates and gathered 10 percent of the overall vote, the top 27 candidates on its list would be in the 275-person assembly. Nine of them would have to be women.

Individuals can be elected by receiving 1/275th of the vote.

Any suggestion of delaying the elections beyond the scheduled Jan. 30 date because Sunnis are reluctant to vote has been knocked down by President Bush and other administration officials.

“There’s some flexibility in approaching this problem,” said a Bush administration official. “There’s a willingness to play with the end result — not changing the numbers, but maybe guaranteeing that a certain number of seats go to Sunni areas even if their candidates did not receive a certain percentage of the vote.”

The idea of altering election results is so sensitive that administration officials who spoke about it did not want their names revealed.

Some experts on Iraq say such talk could undercut efforts to drum up support for voting in Sunni areas.

Guaranteeing a certain number of positions in government for certain ethnic groups is not without precedent. Lebanon, for example, has a power-sharing arrangement among its main sectarian groups. The parliament in Iran has seats reserved for religious minorities.

“This idea is a nonstarter,” said Feisal al-Istrabadi, Iraq’s deputy permanent representative at the United Nations.

“But what it tells you is that inherently people are concerned about the problems with respect to legitimacy of the elections, not because people are going to boycott, but because people are going to be afraid to vote.”

Al-Istrabadi said that adding legislators after the election would pose practical and legal difficulties, because there was no provision in the law that would permit it.

However, others say that because the plan for 275 members in the future legislature was put forward by an unelected government, an elected government might be able to do what it wanted.

Material from The Washington Post is included in this report.