Poised between hope and chaos

Even if Sunnis boycott Iraq's election in large numbers, the political settlement reached afterward is what will determine whether the country can avoid civil war.

Published January 24, 2005 2:08PM (EST)

Mohammad Hassan al-Balwa is a Sunni Muslim businessman from the devastated Iraqi city of Fallujah. The former head of the City Council, he says he will not vote in his country's forthcoming elections on Jan. 30. The election will be the beginning of the division of the Iraqis, he said. From the beginning [of the U.S.-led invasion], the Sunnis have been marginalized, because they said the Sunnis were all Baathists. This was their mistake.

The majority of people in Fallujah, he adds, have hatred and anger in their hearts.

Balwa reflects the sharp divisions in Iraq in the run-up to an election for which 12.5 million people are registered to vote. He reflects on an Iraq divided between those who will vote and those, either through fear or rejection of the process, will stay at home.

He reflects, too, on an Iraq divided between the minority Sunni Muslims, who dominated the Iraq of Saddam Hussein for decades, and southern Shiites and northern Kurds. The latter comprise the 80 percent of the population who were persecuted under Saddam's rule, while the Sunni minority of just 20 percent dominated all areas of Iraqi life, the ruling Baath Party in particular.

It is the lethal tension between these two groups that will define whether the next 12 months of the political process, which the elections will kick-start, will mark the beginning of the end of Iraq's violence or the start of the country's breakup and descent into civil war. The elections will not just be critical for Iraqis. For countries such as Britain and the U.S., whose increasingly war-weary populations are supplying the bulk of foreign troops in Iraq, the elections threaten to have a lasting impact, dictating when those soldiers can finally come home.

Evidence on which path Iraq might follow has for months been pored over by politicians, diplomats, academics and intelligence officials. If one thing is certain, it is that this month's elections will mark the moment of ascendancy of the majority Shiites, who make up 60 percent or more of the country's population -- and of Sunni defeat. What is also certain is that the weeks leading up to the announcement of the results in mid-February will be bloody.

These are twin issues that are highlighted by Mike Rubin, a former political advisor to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq: I expect there to be a great deal of violence, especially in the two or three days before the election itself.

He describes the conundrum at the heart of the Sunni abstention and Sunni violence. The Sunni leaders, he explains, are not afraid that the election will not represent them. They are afraid that it will represent them. They are afraid of coming to terms with their minority status. While their minority status will be confirmed whether Sunnis vote or not, all they can hope is that by abstaining in large numbers, and blaming the violent disruption caused by their own community for being unable to participate, somehow they can rob the poll of its legitimacy.

What is clear is that despite the spiraling violence aimed at disrupting the elections, vast numbers of Iraqis will vote on Jan. 30. Polls conducted over the past few months in Iraq -- while uncertain in other respects -- have indicated that 80 percent of the electorate intends to vote, a figure that would suggest turnouts for Shiites and Kurds in the ninth percentile and a Sunni vote likely to be desperately low. Given the campaign of abstention and intimidation in the Sunni heartland, that makes the likely results not difficult to fathom: a massive victory for lists dominated by Shiites way beyond the 60 percent that they represent in the population. That high turnout is being encouraged by a religious decree issued by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani calling on all Shiites to vote.

But for some the likely scale of a victory for Shiite candidates as a result of a Sunni boycott is as much a cause for concern as the boycott itself. Among those afraid of the impact of a widespread Sunni abstention is Iraq's interior minister, Falah al-Naqib.

Boycotting means betrayal and the sparking of civil war, he said last week. If the National Assembly does not represent all Iraqis, we will enter civil war. It is precisely this that has driven one of Iraq's most influential Shiite parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), to appeal last week to reluctant Sunnis to vote. Most Sunnis, however, seem unlikely to listen, a situation that has deteriorated markedly from even two months ago, when the main Sunni political party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, entered a list of 275 candidates.

After failing to win agreement for a six-month delay of the vote because of the violence, the party eventually withdrew. While it remains on the ballot, its candidates have promised not to take up their seats. With a self-justifying logic, Ayad al-Samarrai, a senior official in the party, said he believed a delay would at least have helped reduce the violence. If there are 80 percent of our supporters who can't vote now, that would be down to 20 percent who couldn't vote, he said, ignoring the fact that it is precisely the fact of Sunni militants seeking to disrupt the elections that is behind the low Sunni participation. It is a reality not likely to be transformed by a six-month delay.

But whether the election's backers in London and Washington like it or not -- and no matter how hard they try to persuade the world to focus on the political process and not the violence -- it is precisely the fear of civil war and division that hangs over not just the poll but its aftermath as well. A single question dominates: whether the insurgency will continue to grow in parallel to the rolling out of the political process that will lead to a referendum on a new constitution planned for October, or whether these elections will be the high-water mark of the violence. It is the latter that Washington and London are counting on.

And the social complexity of the insurgency has led some to abandon attempts to put a numerical value on the scale of the resistance, which at least one Iraqi minister has claimed recently to be 200,000 strong, to evaluate whether even now it is still growing, and to conceive of it in terms of its potential to influence instead.

It is very difficult to define what membership of the insurgency entails, says one Whitehall source. If you let your cousin hide in your house because he is an insurgent, does that mean you are an insurgent too? The crucial question is whether its influence is continuing to expand. At the moment the insurgency still lacks any coherent political agenda. We still see it as operating largely in local networks, and it has yet to show any signs of achieving any consensus across the sectarian divide.

This inability to join forces with Shiites in a joint resistance, says the official, exists despite the fact that all parties, Shiites included, say they want foreign troops to leave. But if officials hope that this may mark the limit of the uprising, what is also evident is that despite the siege of Fallujah and continuing operations across the Sunni triangle and elsewhere, the resistance -- in physical terms at least -- still appears not to have lost its momentum.

While it is inevitable that the violence will accelerate in the days ahead, the insurgents, foreign governments and Iraqis themselves recognize that it is the political settlement reached after the elections that is crucial to whether Iraq can avoid a wider bloodshed.

A Shiite-dominated National Assembly of 275 members will be asked to select a president and two vice presidents, who will then choose a prime minister and nominate a cabinet. That cabinet will be referred back to the assembly for approval. Already some are predicting that the allocation of ministerial portfolios may be a source of its own tension as individuals and parties struggle for powerful ministries.

Former U.S. political advisor Rubin is one of those who see the potential for tension over who controls the powerful Interior Ministry and, beyond that, a clash of authority with American military authorities. It is a fight, Rubin believes, that the Shiites will win, with the Kurds getting the presidency and the Sunnis, perhaps, the Foreign Ministry.

Even more critical, however, will be the struggle to write Iraq's new Constitution, scheduled to be put to a referendum in October, a referendum that can be blocked if it is rejected by three provinces, a point in Iraq's interim law already deeply unpopular with Shiites, who fear that Kurds and Sunnis could use it to block articles that enjoy majority support, in particular over the sensitive area of the role of religion in the state.

It is precisely for these reasons that both U.S. and U.K. officials are convinced that even if there is a widespread Sunni boycott, some mechanism must be incorporated by a Shiite-dominated Iraqi assembly and government to ensure proper Sunni representation of some kind.

Among those who have articulated this in recent days is been John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, who said last week that it was important for Iraq's new political leaders to be as inclusive as possible in government even if the Sunnis underperform in the vote. It is a call that was reiterated on Friday by the present justice minister, Malek Dohan al-Hasan, a Shiite who warned his co-religionists to protect minority rights, especially those of Sunnis staying away from the polls.

He touched on an already controversial issue that many fear will be exacerbated if a Shiite landslide is returned in the absence of Sunni voters: that Shiite parties must refrain from staffing the government only with their followers, a trend already apparent in the interim government.

Elections are now certain, Hasan, who heads a secular list contesting the election, told Reuters. But I ask the Shiites to look around them. You are in an Arab Sunni region. Who will come to your aid if you monopolize power? Look at the example of Saddam and what happens when political power is not used for the common good.

The Sunni groups -- and I truly despise using this term because Iraq is truly a mixed nation -- have not been frank either. Their argument about the illegitimacy of elections under occupation does not hold. Look at Japan and Germany after the Second World War, he added.

This issue is also bothering some Western officials, who admit that no matter how successful Election Day turns out to be in the numbers voting, a great deal is being asked of Iraqis about how they exercise their sovereignty. The parallel is with the Russian economy, said one British official. Everyone had high hopes when they had got rid of Soviet statism, but did not expect the chaotic and erratic results. We are asking an awful lot of the Iraqi people, who have no experience of a fully participatory democratic system, and who do not enjoy even the minimum levels of political trust.

We would have been OK if the Iraqi middle class had still been intact, but it had a huge hole blown in it in the past 14 years between the first and second Gulf wars. The people who might have been the motor of change were disempowered. Politically, Iraq is a damaged child. Its problems are long term.

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