Lost in the shuffle, Sunni Arabs ponder their role in new order
With Saddam's fall, their minority population now can expect a minority's place in the emerging government, but their participation is needed to ensure the new regime's credibility in the face of the insurgency.
Los Angeles Times
Last of three parts
BAGHDAD, Iraq — The role of outsider is a strange one for most Sunni Arabs in Iraq.
Although they make up only about 20 percent of the population, they held a tight grip on power for most of the past century. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, ruthlessly oppressed Shiites and Sunni Kurds, showering money and privilege on his Sunni Arab brothers.
So it's little wonder that many Sunnis are expressing scant enthusiasm for Sunday's vote to elect a new national assembly. Several of the leading Sunni groups are boycotting the elections, and estimates for Sunni voter turnout in some areas are as low as 5 percent.
"What's the point in voting?" Rosil Shayeb, 24, asked as she left one of Baghdad's largest Sunni mosques recently. "In the end, America is just going to bring in whomever she wants, whether we want them or not. If the elections were legitimate and honest, I would vote. But how can we vote for a government under the control of occupation forces?"
Feeling of futilityAmerican diplomats say many Sunni leaders appear to have concluded they have little to gain from joining a process that will formally end their reign in Iraq.
U.S. officials warn that the politics of abstention could prove disastrous for Sunnis.
"It's a catastrophically wrong analysis," said a senior U.S. Embassy official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "In every case I know where someone's view is that saying 'no' makes you stronger, they either get weaker or they end up negotiating for less."
U.S. officials, of course, have more than just the Sunnis' best interests in mind. The election's success will depend upon a sizable turnout from all sides.
If large numbers of Sunnis fail to vote, the new government will lack credibility in the eyes of many Iraqis.
More important, the raging insurgency — backed chiefly by militant Sunni Arabs and members of the former regime — could continue to stymie U.S. efforts to rebuild Iraq.
Although major Sunni political parties, such as the Iraqi Islamic Party, insist that they reject the use of terrorism and violence, some Sunni clerics have refused to condemn attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. The impending election has served only to heighten strikes against Shiites, Americans and those working on the vote.
Sunni leaders insist that violence and lawlessness in most of their stronghold cities make free and safe elections virtually impossible. Election officials concede that progress toward voting in cities such as Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra and Mosul has been slow.
Sunni leaders dismiss dire predictions that their strategy may backfire, insisting their withdrawal from the election won't have any long-term ramifications and may increase their power and popularity as an opposition force.
"This talk about the marginalization of the Sunnis is nothing more than political propaganda," said Muhsin Abdul Hamid, chairman of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the leading Sunni political party. The party initially offered a slate of candidates but announced late last month that it would withdraw from the race.
"The Sunni people will not recognize the legitimacy of this election and they will not follow its decisions or laws," Hamid said. "Now we are going to work on the side of the opposition, and this opposition that will lead to the unity of Iraq. This is what our people want us to do."
Because the election for Iraq's parliament is based upon a single national district rather than regional precincts, Sunni leaders quickly determined that participating in the vote would be political suicide, potentially winning them just a handful of seats.
"If we had not withdrawn, we would have collapsed and failed in the eyes of the Iraqi people," Hamid said.
Hamid insisted the party has no intentions of pushing its slate or re-entering the race. Unlike other parties, his party has printed no posters or fliers.
Across town, another Sunni politician is pursuing a different strategy. Adnan Pachachi, a former member of the now-defunct Governing Council who was once considered a strong contender for president, has quieted his calls for a delay in the vote and jumped aggressively into the race.
At his campaign headquarters in the upscale Mansour district, staffers raced around hanging freshly printed posters with a large picture of the elder statesman.
Pachachi said he still seeks a delay but was more worried about Sunnis being shut out of the next government, which will draft a new constitution and rule the country for at least a year.
"What will a boycott achieve?" he asked. "I can see possible harm, but I don't see any benefits. Sunnis would still be able to have greater influence with just a few seats rather than none at all. They are really doing it the hard way."
Hachim Hassani, Iraq's minister of Industry and Minerals, is another Sunni politician who fears the price of non-participation. When the Iraqi Islamic Party withdrew from the election, Hassani quit the party rather than resign his post.
"You're going to have another year of Sunnis absent from the government, and that's not good," he said.
Courted by U.S.Hamid is confident that Sunnis won't be forgotten during the formation of the next government. The lack of Sunni participation is now one of the biggest issues in the election. U.S. and Iraqi officials are trying to woo Sunnis back.
Already there is talk about post-election adjustments, such as giving Sunnis additional seats in the assembly or high-profile Cabinet posts, redoing regional elections in Sunni-dominated areas or appointing a special advisory council of Sunni leaders.
Hamid noted that even if Sunnis boycott on Sunday, they'll have another chance to run again by the end of the year, when another parliamentary election is scheduled.
"This election is just a transition election," Hamid said. "This government is not going to determine the future of Iraq."
Ace in the holeThe Sunnis' ace in the hole may be the constitution-drafting process. Under the Transitional Administrative Law, a new constitution must be ratified in a national vote by October.
In a controversial concession sought last year by the Kurds, if a two-thirds majority in any three Iraqi provinces rejects the constitution, it fails. At the time, everyone assumed the provision was designed chiefly to give Kurds veto power over the constitution.
A few months ago, Sunnis, who hold majorities in more than three provinces, realized that they, too, could exploit the provision.
"They came to the conclusion," said the embassy official, "that the best thing to do is sit it all out and blow up the constitution when it happens."
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