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Iraq and the crises ahead

Print edition : Mar 11, 2005 T+T-

Political volatility threatens to engulf Iraq as the outcome of the elections sharpens the religious and ethnic divisions in the war-ravaged country.

in Manama

IT is apparent from the results of Iraq's controversial elections that the social fabric of the multi-religious and ethnically complex nation is under stress. The Shias, who were denied power for most of their history, have emerged as the politically dominant force. The final tally shows that the Shias under the umbrella of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), have won 140 seats in the 275-member Transitional National Assembly, thereby gaining an absolute majority. Sections of the Arab media have reported that the UIA has entered into a tie-up with one Shia and one Turkoman party, gaining six more seats for the coalition.

Aware that they were on the threshold of changing the course of Iraqi history, Shias voted in droves in southern Iraq where their population is concentrated. The top Shia spiritual leader in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, played a key role in bringing the community to the political centre stage by issuing a fatwa (edict) that made balloting a mandatory religious duty. He also played a leading role in cobbling together the UIA - a coalition that had the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Al Daawa party as its prime constituents. Al Daawa leader Ibrahim Jaafari is the frontrunner for the post of Prime Minister.

Flushed with ethnic nationalism, the Kurds outdid the Shias in their enthusiasm to vote. Nearly 90 per cent of them voted in the three Kurdish-dominated provinces as well as in the ethnically mixed provinces of Nineveh, which has Mosul as the capital, and the oil-rich Tamim, which has Kirkuk as its main city.

The Sunnis, Iraq's second largest community, by and large abstained from contesting or voting, abiding by a poll boycott call issued by major political groupings, including the influential Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS). Consequently, the Sunnis won only five seats in the Assembly.

Having ruled Iraq despite their minority status, the Sunnis are an alienated lot. Consequently, the scope of heightened Sunni-Shia tensions in the coming days and months is immense. The Sunnis' antagonism towards the Shias has sharpened since the elections, and given their comparatively easy access to arms they have the capacity of engaging Shias in street battles. Such a development could push Iraq in the direction of a civil war.

The boycott has also sharpened the Sunni community's divisions with the Kurds. It is estimated that the Kurdistan Alliance gained 25 extra seats at the expense of the Sunni Arabs, raising its tally to 75 seats. This is likely to add to the bitterness between the two communities, whose relations have already been on edge. Tensions ran high after the government of former President Saddam Hussein settled a large number of Arabs where Kurds formed the majority population. After the American invasion in 2003, and prior to the elections, the Kurds intensified their demand for the return of the land occupied by the Sunni Arabs. Besides, units of the Kurdish militia, or Peshmerga have fought alongside the American troops against Iraqi resistance fighters, the majority of whom are Sunnis.

The Kurdish victory in the elections is also widening the rift between the Kurds and the Turkomans, who are known to be sympathetic to neighbouring Turkey. Turkey has staunchly opposed the longstanding Kurdish demand for an independent state.

The Shia success at the polls is likely to take the community on a collision course with the Americans. Independent journalists such as Dahr Jamail have recorded that what made the Shia vote en masse apart from the prospect of dominating Iraqi politics, was the desire to get the Americans out of the country as soon as possible. In fact, the UIA in its 22-point election programme had put seeking a time-bound exit of the occupation forces high on its agenda.

Ibrahim Jaafari recently said that it would be counterproductive to see an early departure of the American forces. However, grassroots pressure is likely to push the Shia leadership into demanding the exit of the United States' soldiers.

There are other factors that are likely to drive the Shias on an anti-occupation path. Keen to keep Iraq united, the Shia leaders in the UIA know that a demand for an early end to the occupation can help bridge the growing Sunni-Shia divide. The Sunnis are already spearheading the armed resistance, and a Shia call for an end to the occupation can emerge as a major unifying factor.

Grassroots pressure on Shia leaders to seek an end to the occupation is already rising, mainly on account of the exertions of the Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr, who has a large following in the slum district called Sadr City on the edge of Baghdad. Al Sadr has issued a call for a time-bound U.S. withdrawal and advocated the convening of a "reconciliation conference", where all Iraqis, including Sunnis, should be represented.

Al Sadr has been consulting Sunni groups for setting a deadline for the U.S. withdrawal as well as for the staging of the conference. This was confirmed by Abdul-Salam al Kubaisi, a prominent member of the AMS. On February 15, al Sadr's representative joined the AMS in hosting a meeting in Baghdad's Umm al Qura Mosque, where the group demanded a timetable for the withdrawal of the troops. The AMS said that such a timetable was a precondition for its participation in the political process.

The interests of the new government and of the occupation authorities are likely to clash on another major issue too. Iraqi Shias appear to be overwhelmingly in favour of having Islam as the sole source of legality in the country. On February 6, a spokesman for the Shia spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Ishaq al Fayad said, "All of the Ulema (clergy) and Marja (religious leaders) and the majority of the Iraqi people want the National Assembly to make Islam the (sole) source of legislation in the permanent constitution and to reject any law that is contrary to Islam." Ayatollah Sistani supported the statement, as did Hussein Shahristani, a leader of the UIA, a week later. The move is likely to be supported by the Sunnis, who have shown their preference for the enforcement of Islamic law in Iraq.

With an Islamic Republic already present in neighbouring Iran, the Americans are expected to reject moves that would encourage the emergence of an Iraqi state based on the principles of Islamic jurisprudence. In fact, former U.S. administrator Paul Bremer had earlier threatened to veto the interim Constitution when Shia leaders of the Interim Governing Council (IGC) sought to incorporate in the document the clause that Sharia should become the "primary basis" of law in Iraq. The move to impose Sharia is also likely to distance the Shias from the Kurds, who prefer a secular Constitution.

As of now, it appears that the differences between the new Iraqi dispensation and the American authorities in Iraq will spill out into the open fairly soon.

This is because once the new Assembly elects the Presidency Council, which includes a President, two Vice-Presidents and an executive Prime Minister, it has to seek immediate negotiations with the U.S. administration. The purpose of the dialogue is to draw a format under which American and foreign forces should be withdrawn from Iraq. These discussions, however, are unlikely to make much headway.

President George Bush, in his State of the Union address on February 2, stated that the U.S. was prepared for a long haul in Iraq. "We will not set an artificial timetable for leaving Iraq, because that would embolden the terrorists and make them believe they can wait us out," he said. Amplifying the point, he added: "We are in Iraq to achieve a result: a country that is democratic, representative of all its people, at peace with its neighbours, and able to defend itself."

While the Americans, are on the defensive after the Iraqi elections, they nevertheless have the capacity and the institutional memory to spin Iraq into chaos in order to reinforce their control. Stephen Shalom, in a recent article posted over the web site Znet, argues that the Americans have been training Iraqis - most likely select Kurdish Peshmerga fighters - to carry out targeted political assassinations while battling the Iraqi resistance. He points that the U.S. has a history of adopting a similar approach in its military engagement in Vietnam, under the infamous Phoenix programme, and in other trouble spots such as Indonesia and El Salvador. Apart from causing political disarray, such a strategy has resulted in the killing of a large number of civilians.

As political volatility threatens to engulf Iraq, the Kurdish north faces its own specific problems. The Kurds have been demanding that the current boundaries of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region (KAR) consisting of three provinces, formed by the government of Saddam Hussein, should be expanded. Specifically, they want the oil-rich Tamim province to become part of an expanded KAR. The 48 per cent vote that the Kurdish alliance got in the provincial elections, which were held simultaneously with the national polls, is likely to encourage the Kurds to reinforce this demand.

The Kurdish insistence on an expanded KAR is likely to trigger two major problems. First, it is expected to heighten differences with the Arab Sunnis and the Turkomans. Already hundreds of Arab and Turkmen protesters have marched in the streets of Kirkuk, questioning the legitimacy of the elections.

But more important, the Kurdish political ascendancy threatens to draw neighbouring Turkey into Iraq's internal politics. This is because the Turks fear that a Kurdish province having access to the abundance of oil available in the Kirkuk area will have the resources to emerge as an independent state. The presence of an independent Kurdistan, in turn, could encourage Kurds living in Turkey to revive guerilla warfare, resulting in the separation of the Kurdish-dominated areas from the Turkish mainland. Not surprisingly, Turkey has already protested against Iraq's election results - especially the outcome in Kirkuk.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement that there were "imbalanced results" in several regions, including Kirkuk. "It has emerged that certain elements have tried to influence the voting and have made unfair gains from this," the statement said, in an apparent reference to the Kurds. "As a result the Iraqi Interim Parliament will not reflect the true proportions of Iraqi society."