Divided House

Print edition : January 13, 2006

The elections to Iraq's National Assembly, which witnessed heavy polling, produce results that reflect the fractured nature of the polity.

ATUL ANEJA in Dubai

An election poster showing the images of three Grand Ayatollahs and urging Iraqis to elect the Shia-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, in Najaf on December 3. The UIA did very well in the Shia strongholds of central and southern Iraq.-QASSEM ZEIN/AFP

AS preliminary results of the December 15 elections to establish a 275-member permanent National Assembly in Iraq begin to trickle in, there are clear indications that Iraqis have yet again voted along sectarian lines. The Shia-dominated United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) has done exceedingly well in the Shia strongholds of central and southern Iraq. It has also won in mixed districts where other communities, including Sunnis, reside in significant numbers. However, the margins of victory there have varied, reflecting the ethnic and religious composition of each area. For instance, in Baghdad, where Shias have a numerical edge over Sunnis, the UIA got around 58 per cent of the vote. The Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front (IAF) has come second and the Iraqi Nationalist List of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who stood on the secular ticket, came a distant third.

As the first trends emerged, senior UIA figures began to predict a significant victory for their party. UIA leader Abbas Al-Bayati said he expected his party to secure between 120 and 140 seats. The UIA, however, was likely to seek allies from other parties, even if it secured a majority in the National Assembly. Al-Bayati said his group would prefer a tie-up with the Kurdish Alliance in the process of government formation, but was open to having an all inclusive national unity government. A UIA-Kurdish Alliance front had won a two-thirds majority in Parliament in the elections held in January to draft a new constitution.

As expected, the Kurdish Alliance has won with huge margins in the Kurd-dominated northern Iraq. In the Dohuk province, the alliance polled nearly 90 per cent of the vote. The figure was higher in Arbil where nearly 95 per cent of the ballots cast were in favour of the main Kurdish coalition.

Results from the Sunni-dominated areas of central and western Iraq were yet to come in, but chances were that the Sunni parties, especially the IAF, would do well. Unlike the January elections, the Sunnis voted in droves, abiding by a spate of appeals from hardline clerics to do so. For instance, a cleric from the hardline Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) called upon Sunnis to vote in strength.

"It is a decisive battle that will determine our future. If you give your vote to the wrong people, then the occupation will continue and the country would be lost. Participation in the elections is a must and it is a religious duty," he said.

Contrary to perceptions that Sunni participation meant a weakening of the armed resistance, Sunni groups have insisted that they were merely adding a political dimension to their fight to end the American occupation. Emphasising that a military and political track have to be pursued simultaneously, a senior commander of the Army of Mohammed - an armed resistance group, was quoted as saying: "This is a two-track war - bullets and the ballot" go together.

The Sunni participation appears to reflect a broader tussle between Sunnis and Shias for political ascendancy in the region. Not surprisingly, Iraq's Sunni neighbours, especially Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, have played their hand in urging Sunnis in Iraq to vote. Regional political heavyweights came together in Cairo on November 21, where Egypt had hosted an Iraq reconciliation conference. Sunni religious groups as well as loyalists of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, who have been part of the resistance, were also present there. The conference was held under the aegis of the Arab League, in which countries with a majority Sunni population are dominant. Representatives from the United States, which is seeking an exit from Iraq, and Iran, the main external influence on Iraqi Shias, were also present.

UIA supporters, with the Iraqi flag and a picture of firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, in the background.-ALAA AL-MARJANI/AP

The Saudi interest in defending Sunnis became evident when it warned the U.S. in September that Iranian influence in Iraq was becoming overwhelming. In October, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa travelled to Iraq to analyse the situation first hand.

The meeting in Cairo presented an opportunity for the U.S. to hold back-channel discussions with Sunni resistance groups. Harith al-Dhari, the head of the AMS and Ayham al-Samarra'i, who apparently has been close to former Baathists, participated in the conference. The Arabic daily Al Hayat reported that an informal understanding had been reached at Cairo, where the Americans agreed to pull out of Iraq in 2007.

At the conference, Al-Dhari made it clear that Iraqi resistance groups would not abandon the armed resistance against the "illegitimate" U.S. occupation. However, he made it clear that he stood opposed to terrorism as seen in the indiscriminate bombings carried out by the group led by the Jordanian militant Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, which targeted civilians.

"Branding resistance fighters as terrorists and accusing all of them of being infiltrators from abroad is an injustice to the honourable resistance," Al-Dhari stressed.

Not surprisingly, a large number of Sunni voters saw in the elections an opportunity to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq. On election day, Reuters, the news agency, quoted a Sunni voter in the troubled city of Ramadi as saying that he had cast his vote because he felt that "this election will lead to the American occupation forces leaving Ramadi and Iraq."

Pan-Islamic influences also appeared to have played their part in persuading Sunnis in Iraq to vote. From Qatar, Islamic scholar Yousuf Al Qaradawi called upon the Sunni community in Iraq to vote. "Participating in elections under occupation is not haram (forbidden) as some people say. If they boycott the elections, they will deprive themselves of having a say in the future of the country," Qaradawi said, while delivering a Friday sermon at the Qatari capital Doha's Omar bin Khatab mosque. He pointed out that participation in elections would give people a chance to join the army, police and Ministries and enable them to amend the Constitution. Al-Qaradawi is the Chairman of the International Association of Muslim Scholars (IAMS) and a programme on Al Jazeera television, which features him regularly, is widely popular in the region.

Having tied their participation to the end of the occupation, Sunni groups, once elected, are likely to seek a fixed timetable for the withdrawal of American forces. They are also expected to emphasise that provisions in the Iraqi Constitution that seem to allow "autonomy" to Shia and Kurdish areas in the oil-bearing areas of north and south should be renegotiated.

Many Sunnis fear that under the provision of "autonomy", the Sunni-dominated areas would be deprived of their share of the country's oil wealth. Besides, they apprehend that once access to oil is granted, other sections, especially the Kurdish groups, would have the resources to secede from Iraq. Sunnis, therefore, laid great stress on Iraqi unity during the course of the election campaign.

Despite Sunni participation, Iraq's sectarian divide is far from bridged. Sunnis have dominated Iraqi politics for hundreds of years. But, for the first time, Shias, riding on their demographic strength have emerged as the dominant players following the U.S. invasion. It is far from clear whether the Sunnis have recognised this situation and taken the "strategic decision" to accept their role as junior partners, subordinated to the Shias in the new political scenario. Unless this is done, street fighting can erupt as all groups are well armed and have powerful external backers.

For instance, the Shias have the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) as one of the core constituents of the UIA. Backed by Iran, the SCIRI commands the paramilitary Badr Corps, which is extremely well armed. The SCIRI is also conscious that for the first time in their history, the Shias have a chance to emerge as the dominant political players in Iraq. Consequently, it is unlikely to compromise its interests and bend over backwards to accommodate the Sunnis as nodal players in the new political hierarchy.

Relations between some Sunni guerilla groups and the SCIRI also appear far from cordial. In fact, the U.S. military rescued Sunni prisoners from the basement of a building in Baghdad where they had been tortured. The prison was run by the Interior Ministry, which the SCIRI dominates. The Badr Corps on its part has been allegedly rehabilitated in the Iraqi security and intelligence services.

The SCIRI chief, Abdul Aziz Al Hakim, has gone on record as saying that the Americans have been too soft towards some Iraqi guerilla groups, which, it has been long recognised, Sunnis lead.

While armed Sunni groups and the SCIRI are on the two ends of the spectrum, the role of the Mehdi Army, led by the nationalist Shia leader Moqtada Al Sadr, is likely to become crucial in order to avoid sectarian clashes from breaking out. Al Sadr, who is part of the UIA, has close ties with Sunni nationalist groups. With either side having ample support from neghbouring countries, the future of a unified Iraq, challenged by sectarian divisions, still hangs in a balance.

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