Attempts to divide

Published : Jan 14, 2005 00:00 IST

Children play with toy guns at a refugee camp in Baghdad for people who fled Falluja. - NAMIR NOOR-ELDEEN/REUTERS

Children play with toy guns at a refugee camp in Baghdad for people who fled Falluja. - NAMIR NOOR-ELDEEN/REUTERS

SPIRALLING violence, which threatens to open a divide between the majority Shia and minority Sunni communities, has marked the countdown to Iraq's controversial elections slated for January 30. Voters are to elect a 275-member Assembly that would appoint a government and draft a Constitution. Once the basic law is written, another round of national elections would be held in 2006. More than 230 parties and groups, organised around 80 alliances, are expected to participate in the polls.

While the Shia community is making extensive preparations to contest, most Sunnis, who have been the traditional rulers of Iraq, appear reluctant to participate. Amid a heated internal debate, the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), an influential but predominantly Sunni body, has opposed the polls. But the Iraqi Islamic Party, known for its Sunni support base, has kept its options open, despite having reservations about the timing of the elections. The party has presented a list of 275 candidates to the Election Commission, but a spokesman said that a final decision on participation was yet to be taken. "If the elections are not postponed, we will reconsider our stance of taking part," he was quoted as saying. At least 17 Sunni and secular parties, including one led by Sunni elder statesman Adnan Pachachi, a former Foreign Minister, have called for a delay, saying voters in Sunni regions were too intimidated to vote.

On the contrary, Shias, who form 60 per cent of the population, appear enthusiastic to participate, in anticipation of capturing power for the first time. Iraq's top Shia spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani has issued an edict calling upon Shias to vote. His followers have presented a list of 228 candidates that brings together Iraq's two main Shia parties, the Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), as well as the Iraqi Hizbollah. Sistani's followers and associates are to contest the elections under the banner of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). Muqtada al Sadr, a prominent Shia cleric who has a wide following, especially in the sprawling Sadr City on the outskirts of Baghdad, has taken a neutral position on the polls. However, he has insisted that religious leaders should seek a guarantee that the foreign troops will leave immediately after the polls.

There has been a surge in the violence as campaigning got under way and it is threatening to impede the electoral process. On December 15, a bomb wounded a high-profile Shia cleric and killed seven people in Karbala, outside one of southern Iraq's holiest shrines. Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al Karbalayee, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, was injured when the bomb exploded outside the western gate of Karbala's Imam Hussein shrine. Thirty-one people were wounded in the incident. A spokesman for the Ayatollah said that the attack was an attempt to sow dissensions between the majority Shia and minority Sunni communities.

"Targeting him (Sheikh al Karbalayee) is part of a series of attempts to create sectarian strife in Iraq by targeting Shia symbols," said a UIA candidate, Jalal Eddin Al Sagheer. Militants want to provoke Shias into reacting "so that the political process would collapse," he said.

The most serious attempt to derail the elections was made when 61 people were killed and 120 wounded in a double suicide bombing in the Shia strongholds of Najaf and Karbala on December 19. In Najaf alone, at least 48 people died and 90 were injured when a car bomb exploded near the Imam Ali shrine. The blast occurred close to where the city's United States-backed Provincial Governor Adnan al-Zorfi and Police Chief Ghalib al Jazaari were standing. The Associated Press quoted Jazaari as saying that the two men had been the targets of the attack. In a similar explosion, a car bomb went off at a crowded bus station in Karbala, leaving at least 13 people dead and 30 wounded, police sources said. The car carrying the bomb apparently tried to target a police recruitment centre but ploughed into the bus terminal after it found the street blocked.

Aware of the grave consequences of sectarian strife, Shia leaders have warned against revenge attacks following the two bombings. Shia cleric Mohammed Bahr al Uloum urged Shias not to avenge the killings and to remain focussed on the elections. "The Shias are committed not to respond with violence, which will only lead to violence. We are determined on elections," he said. A spokesman for the movement led by al Sadr said civil war would be "hell".

In another incident, at least three election workers were shot dead in Baghdad. The December 19 attack took place in Haifa Street, which is a stronghold of the Iraqi resistance. The election workers were attacked while they were travelling in a car. Gunmen reportedly fired on the car and then dragged out and shot the passengers. The car was set on fire and the bodies were left lying near the burning wreckage. The attack was part of a series of related strikes.

A day earlier, mortars landed on an election office in Dujail, north of Baghdad, killing two people. A mortar also hit an election office in Kirkuk, Iraq's oil-rich and ethnically divided city. In November, resistance fighters destroyed a warehouse containing election material in the northern city of Mosul.

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