Global Policy Forum

Iraqis Fearing a Sunni Boycott of the Election


By Dexter Filkins

New York Times
October 10, 2004

Leaders of Iraq's crucial Sunni Arab minority say they have failed to generate any enthusiasm for nationwide elections scheduled for January, and are so fearful of insurgent violence and threats that they can meet only in private to talk about how - or even whether - to take part. The leaders among the Sunni Arabs, which had dominated Iraqi politics since the nation's birth in 1920, also said in interviews here that many prospective Sunni voters were so suspicious of the American enterprise in Iraq, and so infuriated by the chaotic security situation in the Sunni-dominated areas, that they were likely to stay away from the polls in large numbers.

Sunni participation is crucial to the election. While a Sunni boycott remains far from certain and some Sunni leaders still hold out hope for a turnaround, American officials fear that if large numbers of Sunnis do not vote, the election will be regarded as illegitimate and may even feed the insurgency that has gripped much of the country. While American military commanders say they intend to open up many predominantly Sunni areas now under the control of insurgents, some Sunni tribal and religious leaders say that so far the campaign appears to be having the opposite effect, alienating the people it is supposed to liberate. "What elections are you talking about?" said Raad Rahim Ahmed, a 50-year-old resident of Samarra, who said American soldiers killed his wife and two children when they cleared the city of insurgents last week. "I've lost my entire family," he said. "Why should I trust this government? Why should I vote at all?"

Although several Sunni-based political parties have taken root here, their leaders say their attempts to rally constituents are failing to resonate in the face of cynicism and violence. Many of those who want to take part in the elections say they can do so only in secret, lest they risk assassination by Sunni insurgents. "What we think is that people ought to vote," said Dhari al-Samarrai, a senior leader of the Islamic Party, a largely Sunni group. "But people are telling us, we won't take part in the elections. What is the use, with all these bombings? The big tribes, Dulaimi and Jabouri, all of them are telling us this."

With voter registration to begin Nov. 1, some Iraqi leaders say they are hoping that enthusiasm among the Sunnis for the elections will pick up, especially if the violence is brought under control. Some Sunni leaders predict that more of their brethren will decide to take part as it becomes more certain that the elections will not be postponed. But for now, the mood among tribal and religious leaders as well potential voters appears to be one of apathy. Many leaders say they are especially fearful that the Sunnis, who dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein, face an era of persecution under an American-backed alliance of Shiites and Kurds, who together make up as much as 80 percent of the population. Both groups are expected to vote in great numbers.

Already, one of the largest independent Sunni groups, the Association of Muslim Scholars, has announced that it will not take part in the elections. The group claims to represent 3,000 Sunni mosques around the country. The prospect of a low turnout by Sunni Arabs is deeply troubling to Iraqi leaders and American officials, who fear that the results of an election in which they do not take part will be viewed as illegitimate and fuel the guerrilla insurgency, and not, as is hoped, bring it to end. The body to be chosen in the elections, the National Assembly, is supposed to draft Iraq's permanent constitution.

Without adequate Sunni representation on that body, many people fear here that the constitution may not adequately protect them. Some Sunni leaders, especially those who are planning to run for office, say they still expect a large turnout among the Sunni voters once they realize that they will be left behind if they do not take part. Even if they have not begun campaigning in the Sunni Triangle, the area west of Baghdad that has been a hotbed of the insurgency, these candidates say they have begun meeting with tribal leaders to persuade them to support their candidacies.

Some of these political leaders say they place great hopes in the American-led offensive to recapture as many as two dozen cities, most of which are in the Sunni-dominated areas. Once those obstacles are removed, they say, Iraqis from even the most hostile cities, like Falluja, will step forward to run for office. "The Sunnis have been in power for 500 years, and for the first time that has changed," said Saad Abdul Razak, a senior leader of the Iraqi Independent Democrats, a predominantly Sunni party. "They are afraid of losing their power, but I think through the democratic process they will realize that this is nonsense."

While some Sunni leaders, like those in the Association of Muslim Scholars, say free elections are not possible until the Americans leave the country, others say they may be willing to take part under certain conditions. In that case, the Sunni leaders say, their people may yet come out to vote in large numbers. Wamid Omar Nadhmi, the leader of the Arab Nationalist Movement, a largely Sunni political party, said that if the American military could guarantee that it would pull back to its bases during the election campaign and if the Americans offered sufficient assurances that they would refrain from interfering in the elections, then many Sunnis, including himself, might take part. "A lot of people want democracy here, but they are just not comfortable with elections under American supervision," Mr. Nadhmi said. "If they don't meet our conditions, we will call for a boycott. Otherwise, we would be accused of being puppets of America."

American and British commanders say that they intend to allow the Iraqi forces to take the lead role in providing security during the election campaign, but that they have no plans to withdraw completely on election day or during the campaign. Despite his concerns, Mr. Nadhmi has quietly begun to pull his own party together and to meet potential partners in a political coalition. Those meetings, he says, are private. Mr. Nadhmi, like many other Sunnis here, is afraid to campaign or hold public gatherings, for fear that he will become the target of insurgents.

Yet even if many Sunni leaders decide to jump into the fray, it seems far from certain that ordinary voters will follow their lead. In the Sunni areas under the control of the Iraqi government, large numbers of Sunnis remain deeply ambivalent about the American-backed enterprise. In the areas recently freed from insurgents, like Samarra and Babil Province, the attitude seems to be not one of gratitude, or even ambivalence, but of anger and resignation. Such bitterness seems widespread in the Sunni Triangle. At a recent meeting in Baghdad, a tribal leader from Falluja, a town still under insurgent control, gave a grim assessment of the coming elections. "You will not have one office to run the elections in Falluja," said Ismail Abdid Fayad, a tribal leader taking part in peace negotiations with the government. "People will not vote. We will not participate in the elections. We will not support imperialism."

Yet even Mr. Fayad acknowledged the costs of Sunni inaction, saying it could doom the Sunnis to impotence in the new Iraqi political order. "That's the problem," he said. "The Sunnis will suffer if we do not participate." Yet after that moment of self-doubt, Mr. Fayad reverted to his original line. "All the revolutions in Iraq have been made by the Sunnis," he declared. "We will make a revolution again." Some Sunni leaders say one solution could be to delay the election until the violence in those areas subsides. Such a delay seems highly unlikely, given the insistence of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most powerful Shiite leader, that the elections be held no later than Jan. 31. The Shiites, who make up perhaps 60 percent of the population, are the Sunnis' mirror-image: long dispossessed and eager to vote.

Shiite enthusiasm, coupled with Sunni apathy, spells out the quandary faced by the Iraqi government and their American benefactors. The fear of many Iraqis, like Mr. Nadhmi, is that the elections will go forward and the Sunnis will stay home, rendering the result a spur for even more conflict. "If the Sunnis don't participate in the elections," Mr. Nadhmi said, "we will weaken considerably the legitimacy of the elections and of the parliament." "The elections," he said, "will be meaningless."

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