By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 25, 2005
BAGHDAD, Dec. 24 -- After angry street protests and charges of vote-rigging in last week's elections heightened tensions in an already divided Iraq, U.S. officials and leaders of the country's main factions are negotiating the formation of a government that would represent all groups in hopes of heading off further fragmentation and a possible surge of violence.
Each of the country's three largest communities -- Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and ethnic Kurds -- voted overwhelmingly on Dec. 15 for lists of parliamentary candidates that represented its own group. According to preliminary, unofficial ballot counts, the largest share of votes was won by the alliance of Shiite Muslim religious parties that leads Iraq's outgoing government. Minority Sunni Arabs, meanwhile, appeared to have won fewer votes than they had anticipated.
That voting pattern, and the subsequent unrest and charges of fraud by Sunnis, exacerbated long-standing fears and distrust that had emerged since the fall of Saddam Hussein almost three years ago, Iraqi officials and Western diplomats said. In recent weeks, Shiite and Sunni leaders have called for the formation of sectarian armies to police their respective regions, a step some observers say could be a precursor to open clashes between the groups. The Kurds, who dominate most of northern Iraq, already have their own fighting force, as do several Shiite parties.
"Every group here is afraid of every other group: The Sunnis are afraid, the Shiites are afraid, and the Kurds are afraid," said a Western diplomat in Baghdad who agreed to be interviewed on the condition he not be named. "And the response to that has been to sort of draw together as a kind of self-preservation tactic. When it came down to it, people voted on the basis of identity, and now it is time to walk everybody back and choose a government that represents the country. This is a critical time."
Iraq's largest Sunni parties, together with the secular Shiite leader and former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, have denounced the elections as fixed and threatened to boycott the next parliament if the vote is not rerun. In a demonstration Friday by more than 10,000 Iraqis, protesters held banners that vowed to "extinguish the candle" -- a reference to the symbol employed by the Shiite parties during the campaign.
In response, leaders of top Shiite religious parties such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq said Saturday that Iraqi law precluded repeating the elections. "What is happening in the streets is led by gangs of the former regime insurgents who don't want to fix the results" but want to "disrupt the political process," Jawad Maliki, a senior member of the Supreme Council, said at a news conference in Baghdad.
Despite the public standoff, factional leaders are engaged in behind-the-scenes negotiations. Maliki acknowledged in Saturday's news conference that Iraq could not move forward without factional unity and that negotiations had "started already between us and the slates that won in the elections, away from the voices we hear in the street."
"The next government will have a full term of four years, which requires that we have agreement on how to positively run the government and the state," said Alaa Makki, a senior member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's largest Sunni political organization. "We don't want to end up with a government similar to the current one."
The Sunnis, who account for about 20 percent of Iraq's population, controlled the government under Hussein. Since his ouster, they have struggled to come to terms with their diminished power, though their strategy has shifted from boycotting the January elections -- which left them powerless in parliament -- to turning out in force to vote last week. U.S. officials have long maintained that the inclusion of Sunnis, who are thought to make up the bulk of the insurgency, is critical to stemming the violence.
"The challenges ahead are real," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said during a visit to Iraq this week. "The task of fashioning a government as described, a government of national unity that governs from the center, that has the confidence and the capability to lead this country during a challenging period, is a considerable task."
On Saturday, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq, with unparalleled influence over Shiite politicians, was said to have called for a government that would help maintain unity.
After a meeting with Sistani, who rarely speaks publicly on politics, the national security adviser, Mowaffak Rubaie, said the cleric "appealed to all sides to remain calm." Sistani also said it was critical for "the winner in the elections to work with the rest of the Iraqi groups to form a national unity government," Rubaie related.
Iraq's Shiite parties represent about 60 percent of the population and are estimated to have won at least 120 of 275 seats in the new parliament. With the largest share of seats, they will have the first opportunity to form a new government. But lacking the two-thirds majority required for approval of a prime minister, they are seeking to build a coalition -- similar to the current administration, which comprises mainly Shiites and Kurds -- to line up behind their top candidates for prime minister: the Supreme Council's Adel Abdul Mahdi and the incumbent, Ibrahim Jafari of the Dawa party.
Before that process can begin, Iraq's election commission must complete its investigation of about 1,500 reports of improprieties related to the vote, including dozens deemed serious enough to potentially change the outcome. More than 400 complaints have already been reviewed and found without merit, the commission head, Adil Lami, said Saturday. The commission is expected to finish its work by early January.
At an office in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone on Saturday, elections experts from the United Nations and other international organizations joined their Iraqi counterparts in poring over boxes full of ballots from polling stations in the capital where complaints were received. Party workers and other monitors watched the process from behind a glass divider.
Beyond Baghdad, concern about the outcome of the election is mounting in Iraq's Shiite-populated south and Sunni-dominated west. The country's ethnic Kurds already enjoy relative autonomy in three northern provinces, though they are widely expected to make a push for further independence.
In Najaf, the holy city that some Shiites want at the heart of a southern federal region, residents said Sunnis' concerns over fraud were unfounded.
"The elections were very honest, and we are surprised that some politicians reject the results," said Fadhil Muhammed Ridha, 33, a religious student. "They only say that fraud happened in the places where they lost."
But in Fallujah, the city west of Baghdad where U.S. forces conducted a major offensive against Sunni insurgents last year, some residents said they were already losing faith in the political process. Few voted in January, but turnout in Fallujah was more than 90 percent last week.
"People said politics is not fair, so we didn't vote in the first election. Now we voted in this election, and they change the results," said Fawzi Muhammed, an engineer who is chairman of Fallujah's reconstruction committee. "It is not good, because people here, if they think this government took their rights, they will fight."
Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim, Omar Fekeiki and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.