Global Policy Forum

It's Not the Vote that Counts


By Syed Saleem Shahzad *

Asia Times
February 1, 2005

Such was the security - and fear of attacks by the resistance - that Iraqi interim President Ghazi al-Yawar was forced to vote in the sanctuary of the heavily-fortified Green Zone in Baghdad on Sunday. Nevertheless, up to 8 million Iraqis, about 60% of eligible voters, are believed to have voted nation-wide, although this could not be verified in the absence of accredited independent poll observers. Voters in Shi'ite and Kurdish areas are reported to have turned out in large numbers. The turnout in Sunni-dominated areas like Fallujah and Mosul, where the insurgency is strongest, and where Sunni leaders had called for a boycott, was substantially lower. In the Shi'ite-dominated cities of southern Iraq, and through much of Baghdad, Iraqis flocked to the polls. They did so despite insurgent attacks that left more than 40 people dead across the country, including nine suicide bombers.

Officials expect preliminary poll results in six to seven days and final results in about 10 days. Voters chose from among 111 parties for members of 18 provincial parliaments, as well as a 275-member National Assembly, which will be empowered to write the country's constitution. That is scheduled to be followed by a referendum on the constitution, followed by another round of elections in December. One group of candidates that appeared to do well was the United Iraqi Alliance, a large coalition of Shi'ite parties under the umbrella of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's powerful religious (Shi'ite) leader. The slate of candidates led by Iyad Allawi, the prime minister, also appeared to have done well.

In central Iraq, which is still the strongest Ba'athist base, voters stayed away. In the province of Babil (Babylon), which is the strongest base of the Ba'ath Party, election offices were not even opened. Even in the predominantly Shi'ite neighborhood of Sadr City in Baghdad (formerly al-Thawra city) many followers of Muqtada al-Sadr heeded boycott calls, and all Shi'ite clerics associated with the Sadrist party in the district denounced the elections as being held "under US occupation". Shi'ite clerics of pure Arab origin, such as Ayatollah Ahmed al-Hassani al-Baghdadi, not only refused participation in the elections, but also gave calls for support of the Iraqi national resistance. Muqtada asked his followers to stay away. "Taking into consideration the popularity and clout enjoyed by the al-Sadr group, one realizes that not all Shi'ites are participating in Sunday's polls," Sheikh Hassan al-Zarqani, the Sadrists' media officer, told a Qatar-based website. "One also realizes that, on the contrary, the majority of Shi'ites oppose the elections," he added. On the other hand, most non-Arab pro-Iranian Shi'ite clerics, such as the influential Sistani and Ayatollah Bashir, supported the elections.

Opposition in exile

Asia Times Online spoke to Nada al-Rubaiee in the Netherlands. Nada is a member of the central committee of the Iraqi Patriotic Alliance (IPA), a collection of different Iraqi groups opposed to the US occupation of Iraq. It is based in Iraq, as well as in other countries, such as Syria, Jordan, France and the Netherlands. Initially it was a small group of mainly communist Iraqi dissidents. It was virtually unknown before November 2002, when its leader, Abdul Jabbar Kubaisi, travelled to Baghdad to meet with high-ranking Iraqi officials. The move was part of Saddam Hussein's strategy to make peace with opposition groups and put together the widest coalition possible in case of an attack from the US. According to IPA members, Saddam promised democratic reforms and Kubaisi decided to side with the former Iraqi dictator against the American invasion. In February 2003, the IPA held a conference in Paris where its delegates pledged to fight the "American imperial aggression".

Asia Times Online: Was the call for a boycott of the election a success?

Nada: Although the "Iraqi government" parties have spent a lot of money on the election campaign, the majority of the Iraqi people oppose the election, and therefore the majority boycotted it; they see no solution in the election for their daily problems: clean drinking water, gas and electricity.

ATol: The majority of people from cities and provinces like Fallujah, Anbaar and Mosul boycotted the election; we are talking here about millions of people.

Nada: The "anti-election" campaign was relatively strong in the southern provinces: Basra (where the Ba'ath Party was founded), Amarah, Nasiria; but the active presence of the two big Shi'ite political parties supported by the occupation forces and the Iranian intelligence services did influence the polls. In the north, there was no remarkable anti-election campaign, which was to be expected.

ATol: What was the real strategy of the opposition groups, both political and by the militants to prevent people from casting their votes?

Nada: The Iraqi resistance has succeeded in establishing two clear fronts: that of the Iraqi resistance, backed by its people, and the front of imperialism and its Iraqi and international tools [the US occupation]. The Iraqi resistance has a clear goal of defeating the political agenda of the occupiers; and to reach this goal the occupation and its political institutes are legitimate targets of the resistance. The resistance has made it clear that all Iraqis should boycott the "election". The strategy of the political wing(s) of the armed Iraqi resistance is mainly composed of: spreading written materials (including writing on walls/ graphics) explaining why people should boycott the "election". Public meetings - like Friday prayers - are very essential "tools" in the anti-occupation campaign: most of the imams made their statement on the election issue. They have emphasized the need to boycott the election and to reject any political process taking place during the occupation. This was followed by several arrests of imams, like an imam from Anbaar province who was arrested due to his "anti-election" statements.

ATol: What was the role of external factors, like the Dawa Party, whose members came from Iran.

Nada: The Shi'ite Dawa Party (and the Upper Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (UCIRI) are not an external factor any more. They are taking part in the current Iraqi political system and therefore they are involved in the election campaign. (The vice president, Ibrahim al-Ja'fary, is a member of the Dawa Party). The Badr Brigade - the militant wing of the UCIRI - is promoting the Shi'ite election list in the southern provinces in Iraq, where they have a real presence.

ATol: What are the general feelings in Shi'ite-dominated Sadr City in Baghdad?

Nada: As you know, the media in general are trying to ignore this city. We can't talk on behalf of the people, but from our side we know that the majority - if not all the residents - of this city are boycotting the election. Their religious leader - Muqtada al-Sadr - is still opposing any political process, including elections, that is meant to prolong the occupation or legitimize it.

ATol: What is the Ba'ath Party really up to now?

Nada: Ba'ath Party members who are - together with other resistance forces - involved in the armed resistance are continuing their struggle against the occupation of the country. The "election" process will not stop their fight. As mentioned earlier, they will keep working on their goal to defeat the political agenda of the occupiers, using all possible means.

About the Author: Syed Saleem Shahzad is the Pakistan Bureau Chief of Asia Times Online.

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