FALLUJA, Iraq — The two dozen white-robed Sunni Arab sheiks who sat clustered around a conference table downtown in this former guerrilla stronghold seemed at first to be saying exactly what John Kael Weston wanted to hear. Mr. Weston, a lanky State Department official sitting alongside Marine commanders, had asked whether the residents of Falluja intended to vote in national elections next December.
"We want to vote, and we want representatives in Baghdad," said Hamid Farhan Abdullah of the Mohamda tribe.
Mr. Weston began to smile.
Then the sheik continued. "We are the majority in Iraq," he said. "We are 60 percent of the country. We will vote and we will win."
That line of thought, based on a denial of the fact that Shiite Arabs are the majority in Iraq, lies at the heart of the raging guerrilla war.
For more than two years, the Americans have struggled to bring Iraq's Sunni Arabs into the political fold in hope that the insurgency would lay down its arms. But the Sunnis' belief in their right to power may be so deeply rooted that it could ultimately quash American hopes for planting democracy here in the heart of the Middle East, at the historical and geographic fault line where the Sunni and Shiite worlds collide.
Even if the Sunnis take part in the political process laid out by the Americans over the next half-year, with the drafting of a new constitution followed by national elections, their expectations for the final outcome could be so confounded that they may refuse to accept the full-term government and continue their armed fight.
After centuries of governing the region - first as proxies for the Ottoman Turks, then under the British Empire and Saddam Hussein - many Sunni Arabs have been unable to accept either the demographic facts on the ground (they make up only 20 percent of Iraq's 28 million people) or the new political order (their minority status consigns them to rule by the majority Shiites in a democratic state).
In addition, for many Sunni Arabs, the debate over who should wield authority is drawn not within the frame of the modern nation of Iraq, but on the much broader canvas of the Islamic world, in which Sunnis make up 80 to 90 percent of the total Muslim population. So their sense of entitlement is not surprising.
Still, like the once staunchly rebellious sheiks who met with Mr. Weston here in Falluja, many Sunni leaders have begun saying that it is time to play ball with the Americans and the Shiite-led government, albeit to a limited degree.
The shift in tone comes from a strong desire to regain the power that was stripped from them during the formal American occupation and that eroded further after the January elections, in which few Sunnis turned out because of calls for boycott and threats from insurgents.
American officials avidly embrace this new attitude, at least as a start toward cooperation, even though some analysts of the insurgency say that handing legitimate power to onetime guerrillas may simply leave rebels with two swords of influence - the military and the political.
Until now, one thing that has made it difficult for the Americans to enlist Sunni participation in the new government is that no one leader or group speaks for most Sunni Arabs.
In the last two years, in fact, dozens of groups or individuals have stepped forward claiming they can deliver the support of the Sunnis, and consequently the insurgency.
A few are truly powerful. The Association of Muslim Scholars, which says it represents 3,000 mosques, commands great influence here in Falluja, a deeply devout place once called the "City of Mosques." It also has substantial pull across the rest of Anbar Province, the parched heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency.
The group's leader, Harith al-Dhari, presides at the Mother of All Battles Mosque in western Baghdad and has been elusive about the extent to which his group is involved with the insurgency: "We are acting according to our national and religious duty," he said recently.
The most prominent Sunni political party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, keeps close ties to the Muslim Scholars. L. Paul Bremer III, the former American viceroy here, gave it a seat on the Iraqi Governing Council that advised the Americans after the invasion. The party's leader, Mohsen Abdul Hameed, is a Sunni Kurd, but has distanced himself from the major Kurdish parties and their aims, which include preserving broad autonomy for Iraqi Kurdistan in the north.
A counterweight to those groups is the recently formed National Dialogue Council, headed by a wealthy agricultural entrepreneur and Baath Party proponent named Saleh al-Mutlak. It trades insults with the Iraqi Islamic Party, with each accusing the other of lacking a real following. The precursor to the council was a political group founded in late 2003 and made up mostly of Salafis - fundamentalist Sunnis who count Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi among their fellow worshippers.
"We have reservations about the National Dialogue Council," Sheik Dhiaa al-Din Abdullah, an official with the Muslim Scholars, said in an interview on Friday. "They visited us and talked with us about getting involved in the writing of the constitution. Harith al-Dhari said clearly that we won't get involved in any political process under the umbrella of the occupation."
In recent weeks, though, Sunni leaders have been calling for unity, and somehow managed to agree last month on which 15 Sunnis should sit alongside Shiites and Kurds on the committee that is drafting the new constitution.
On Thursday, hundreds of prominent Sunnis gathered in Baghdad for a unity conference called by Adnan al-Dulaimi, the head of a group charged with maintaining Sunni mosques, cemeteries and other religious sites. "We want you to urge your brothers to rush out and sign their names at the voter registration centers," Mr. Dulaimi told the throng. "We are in a battle that has different fronts, and you are the leaders."
An imam from Mosul, Sheik Ibrahim al-Niema, lamented the poor Sunni turnout in January that left Sunni Arabs with only 17 of 275 seats in the National Assembly. "We blame ourselves because we didn't take part in the last elections," he said. "Our loss was big, and we are still experiencing its bitter consequences."
Among those have been the rising numbers of Shiite Arabs and Kurds in the uniformed security forces and the sanctioning of extralegal Shiite and Kurdish militias. Sunnis have accused the Iraqi police and army of a stream of sectarian-based atrocities that seem to mirror those of security forces during Mr. Hussein's rule.
So to listen to them now, Sunni Arab leaders may very well get out the vote for the December elections. But the true test for democracy may not come until those election results are announced. The numbers will almost certainly reflect the true minority status of the Sunni Arabs and pound home the bitter idea that Shiite rule is inevitable, however united the Sunnis become.
Then the nation-building will really have to begin.