Sunni Turnout in Iraq May Be Compromised By Divided Loyalties
Friday, December 16, 2005
FALLUJAH, Iraq, Dec. 15 -- Ayad Allawi is a strong leader who will combat the influence of Iran on Iraqi affairs, said Shezhan Hussein Abbas, who cast his vote Thursday for the coalition led by Iraq's former interim prime minister.
No, no, said Adil Kdhaier, 35, who likes Allawi but thinks he is too close to the Americans. Kdhaier voted instead for the slate led by Saleh Mutlak, a secular Sunni Arab who has pledged to end the U.S. occupation.
Hakim Rashid said the only logical choice for people from Fallujah was the Tawafaq front, "educated men with PhDs" and, best of all, "they are from this area."
Unlike in regions dominated by Iraq's ethnic Kurds and Shiite Muslims, where the vast majority of voters were expected to cast ballots for the dominant coalition representing their faction, voters in this Sunni Arab stronghold appeared to divide their support. Final results of Thursday's parliamentary election may not be known for two weeks.
The responses of voters leaving polling places in Fallujah seemed to encapsulate a larger challenge that has faced Sunnis since the fall of Saddam Hussein: a lack of unity among factions within the minority community. Even with Sunni Arab turnout appearing to vastly exceed their showing in January's parliamentary vote -- for which Sunni leaders called a boycott -- some Sunnis worry their bloc could be left fragmented and rudderless in Iraq's first full-term parliament.
"We have discussed this before, and that's why the Iraqi Islamic Party sacrificed nominating one slate and preferred to join other parties" that make up the Tawafaq front, said Naseer Ani, who heads the party's political office. "But people always make different decisions. They could never agree on one slate to vote for."
Sunni Arabs, who represent about 20 percent of Iraq's population, dominated the country's leadership during Hussein's three decades in power, but have seen their political fortunes wane since his fall nearly three years ago. From the time of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 and the subsequent banning of Hussein's Baath Party, Sunni Arabs largely disassociated themselves from Iraq's political process, which came to be dominated by Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority.
But since the January election boycott, Sunni Arab leaders have inched toward full participation. Over the summer, they successfully lobbied for an expanded presence on the committee that drafted Iraq's constitution, and two months ago they nearly defeated the document in a nationwide referendum.
According to preliminary numbers from local election officials, more than 50 percent of residents in Anbar province, a Sunni stronghold west of Baghdad, went to the polls Thursday -- their deepest foray into politics since Hussein was toppled.
"It's still an open question as to where exactly the Sunni leadership will come from and who will speak for them, who will fill that vacuum," said a U.S. official in Fallujah who spoke on the condition that he not be named. "The problem becomes, if they win some seats this time and don't get what they want out of them, will they stick it out or sour on the political process?"
Sunni voters Thursday seemed committed to a consistent set of goals: end the occupation of their cities by U.S. forces and remove the Shiite religious government they believe has persecuted Sunnis through the police and military. They also expressed concern that the country would split into autonomous regions, such as a predominantly Kurdish north and a Shiite south.
But in Fallujah, Anbar's second-largest city, there appeared to be little consensus as to who might best accomplish these goals.
"I am voting for an end to ethnic division and an end to this current government," said Raad Abdul Rahim, 36. Asked whom he was voting for, he said only: "I like many candidates. I am voting for Iraq."
The Tawafaq front, a coalition led by the Iraqi Islamic Party, had the largest campaign organization of any group in Anbar, residents said, and stumped heavily for support among religious Sunnis.
Mutlak, a former member of one of the parties in Tawafaq, said he decided this fall to run on his own list when the Islamic Party changed its stance and decided to endorse Iraq's constitution two days before the referendum.
Mutlak, who is also a former member of Hussein's Baath Party, has strong support in Anbar. A poster found Thursday at a school in Khaldiya, located west of Fallujah, said, "The Baath Party, after the Sunnis decided to participate in the elections, has found that the best person to represent the Iraqis is Saleh Mutlak."
Allawi, a secular Shiite whose Iraqi National Accord includes representatives of all sects and ethnicities, is perhaps a less obvious candidate for support among Sunni Arabs. Also a former Baathist, he left Hussein's party in the 1970s and joined the Iraqi opposition in exile. He was prime minister during the November 2004 U.S. and Iraqi offensive that leveled much of Fallujah and displaced tens of thousands of people.
But he also fought efforts to bar former Baathists from government and made good on promises to help Fallujah rebuild, channeling more than $200 million to reconstruct infrastructure and homes.
"In my opinion, none of these groups that have nominated themselves is the embodiment of Iraq's opposition," said Wamidh Nadhme, a Baghdad University political scientist and Sunni political activist. "We will wait and see how they can work together."