Crucial vote in Iraq reveals deep divides _ religious, ethnic _ that remain

By Rebecca Santana, AP
Saturday, February 27, 2010

Iraqi vote shows deep divides still facing country

BAGHDAD — Iraq is a week away from a parliamentary election that was supposed to showcase a peaceful democracy poised to stand on its own feet after U.S. forces go home. While there have been successes, the vote also underlines the deep ethnic and sectarian tensions that are putting the country’s future in the balance — secular or Islamic, pro-Iran or pro-West.

Tension leading up to the March 7 balloting, only the second for a full, four-year parliamentary term since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, shows that despite more than 4,300 American and tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths, the ethnic and religious rivalries that fueled the war remain largely unresolved.

If the election produces a government that can bring relative stability, President Barack Obama can declare success and comfortably withdraw all American forces by the end of next year.

However, if the election leads to greater instability, it will tarnish the legacies of both Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush, casting further doubt over the wisdom of a war that was launched on flawed intelligence that Saddam Hussein held weapons of mass destruction in violation of U.N. orders.

The country has seen progress since the dark days of the insurgency — explosions and the number of bodies at the morgue are fewer, and people move freely around the cities. Those are significant steps for a country where people were once terrified to leave their homes and fled the country by the hundreds of thousands.

But the election runup suggests the core issues that drove violence — power-sharing among the rival minority Sunnis, majority Shiites, and the Kurds — remain unresolved and may be sharpening. That raises grave questions about what will happen when U.S. troops leave.

The U.S., which currently has just under 100,000 troops in the country, plans to withdraw all combat troops by the end of August and the remaining forces by 2012.

With more than 6,200 candidates competing, no one is expecting a straightforward outcome with the quick seating of a new government. It’s unlikely any single group will win an outright majority of seats in the 325-member parliament, which may mean weeks or months of political maneuvering to form a ruling coalition.

It’s been during these periods of instability that violence has spiked in Iraq so all eyes will be watching for a peaceful transition of power.

The choices are stark. Iraq’s 18.9 million registered voters — especially Sunnis who ruled under Saddam and were the backbone of the insurgency — will decide whether the country throws its support behind a religious, Shiite-led government with close ties to neighboring Iran that would be likely under the Iraqi National Alliance, which includes followers of the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

Or does Iraq go with the Iraqiya coalition led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who has appeal among Sunnis and Shiites.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, lies somewhere in the middle. A compromise choice in 2006, al-Maliki has survived and even thrived, trying to portray himself as nationalist candidate who can cross sectarian lines and secure the country.

But his security credentials have been tarnished by a series of bombings targeting government and other buildings in Baghdad. In response, he has raised sectarian tensions by repeatedly blaming members of Saddam’s ruling Baath Party for the attacks, suggesting they were linked to al-Qaida in Iraq.

A committee tasked with vetting candidates for Baathist ties banned hundreds of mostly Sunni candidates from running, further highlighting sectarian tensions and raising concerns the community might boycott as it did in a January 2005 election for an interim parliament.

That boycott robbed the Sunnis of an effective say in running the country, fueled the insurgency and paved the way for a sectarian bloodbath in 2006 and 2007. Their participation in a parliamentary election held in December 2005 was too late to stop an insurgency that already was growing in size and brutality.

The threat was averted when one of those banned, prominent Sunni lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlaq, gave the go-ahead for others in his party to participate in the vote. But fears that violence will resume if Sunni expectations for a larger share of power aren’t met remain high.

A Sunni decision to turn against al-Qaida was a key reason for the drop in violence that followed a U.S. troop buildup in 2008 and many believe it’s time for payback.

Voters won’t be getting any suggestions from Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, however.

The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is highly revered by Iraq’s majority Shiites, has tried to remain above the political fray, and has only encouraged a big election turnout. The Iranian-born cleric has ordered his representatives across the country not to campaign for any blocs or candidates, according to an official at al-Sistani’s office. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with office policy.

Sunnis, as well as many Shiites, will be watching closely for any sign that Shiite Iran’s influence is growing in Iraq.

“The new Iraq is definitely going to be a Shiite Iraq,” said Dr. Abdul-Khaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at Emirates University. “The Sunnis have this major concern about Iran and Iranian domination over Iraq.”

Another concern is the Arab-Kurdish divide, which has threatened to explode into a new round of violence, mainly over the fate of the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk. The debate over how to apportion votes in Kirkuk, which is claimed by both Arabs and Kurds, was so contentious that it forced the delay of the election from January to March.

Kurds, who control three provinces in a self-rule region in northern Iraq, were kicked out of Kirkuk by Saddam under a plan to Arabize the city and have long pushed to make the city theirs. They also want control over a large swath of territory stretching from Syria to Iran called the disputed territories.

For the ethnic minority, which has been a staunch U.S. ally, this election could prove a turning point.

“What they don’t want to see in power is an Iraqi, nationalist, unity centralized government … that basically favors a strong central government in Baghdad,” said Gala Riani, a Middle East analyst with IHS Global Insight.

For the U.S., whose influence in the country has dropped sharply, a key concern is leaving behind a relatively stable government after the sacrifice of so many lives and billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer money.

“If we end up with an autocratic and particularly a religious, autocratic government … then that would indicate that there is a real problem with the amount of lives and resources we’ve put in there,” said Terrence Kelly, a senior analyst with the RAND Corp.

U.S. military officials have said they could alter their withdrawal plan to stay longer if necessary. But extending combat troops much past Aug. 31 could prove politically untenable for the White House, which is beefing up forces in Afghanistan.

For many Iraqis, the hopes and dreams for this election are more much more down-to-earth after years of violence.

“The security is the most important issue to me,” said Baghdad resident, Sami Ahmed. “If there is security, you can work freely and everything will go smoothly.”

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