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Once-dominant Sunnis anxiously watch as Iraq votes are tallied

By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 12, 2010; A06

BAGHDAD -- For Raad Ali, the results of last weekend's elections will dictate whether men like him can survive in today's Iraq.

A Sunni Arab and a former officer in Saddam Hussein's special forces, Ali fled the capital months before the parliamentary vote in the face of apparent political persecution. Now, if the election results favor the Shiite-led coalition headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Ali fears that he and other members of the once-dominant minority will continue to be marginalized.

"The future will be dark," said Ali, 45. "Violence will continue."

Although millions of Sunni Arabs cast ballots Sunday -- in a dramatic departure from national elections in December 2005, when turnout was tepid because of violence and a Sunni boycott -- many worry the vote will do little to provide them with more clout or advance their interests.

The result, some American officials say, could be a burst of political violence as the U.S. military draws down the number of troops here to 50,000. Sunnis, who were initially the most ardent rejectionists of the U.S.-backed, Shiite-led government, could even evolve into an exiled opposition movement along with secular Iraqis.

"The Sunnis will feel betrayed by America and realize the only way to get balance in the government is with violence," said one military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject. "If the elections are free and fair, they're more likely to work with the results."

In his own conversations with a Sunni tribal leader, the official said he was told that if the election did not bring change, the "response would be quick, strong and surprisingly lethal."

Preliminary results from the election show that Maliki's slate won the majority of votes in two southern provinces, while a secular rival coalition made a strong showing in two northern provinces. Results for most of Iraq, including Baghdad, which controls the largest number of seats in parliament, have not been released. Ali said he is worried and already planning his departure from Iraq.

Even before the vote, the electoral process had been clouded by an uproar over the banning of some 500 candidates because of their alleged loyalties to Hussein's outlawed Baath Party. Most were replaced with other candidates. Still, in part because the commission in charge of the purge is headed by Shiite candidates, many saw the disbarments -- which predominantly targeted Sunni and secular candidates -- as an attempt to weed out members of the minority group as well as secular competition.

On the eve of the election, the commission barred 55 others who had been selected to replace some of the previously banned candidates. It remains unclear whether votes cast for those candidates will be counted. On Thursday, the Iraqiya bloc of former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, accused the electoral commission of fraud.

The United States and its allies here have tried since late 2005 to bring alienated Sunnis into the political fold and broker reconciliation with the Shiite-led government. Tens of thousands of Sunnis, many of them former insurgents, were part of the Sons of Iraq, a group of U.S.-backed militias. The militias' members were paid by the U.S. military to cleanse their streets of al-Qaeda from mid-2007 through the fall of 2008, before the Iraqi government began to take control from the U.S. military. Many Sons of Iraq leaders say that since coming under government authority, they have been arrested or forced to flee.

Some of the original leaders of the Sons of Iraq are in hiding, in exile or in Iraqi jails. Most feel abandoned by the U.S. military.

Ali, a father of three, was among those who took up arms with the Sons of Iraq. Since then, he's been briefly detained twice in what he viewed as attempts by the government, which originally opposed the group's creation, to target him. He left the capital months ago, and he worries that he will always be on the run.

On Sunday, he spent hours looking for his name on voting rolls before giving up. He and thousands of others could not find their names.

Shiites "will target everyone with a connection to the former regime," he said. "They will kill me. I expect this every day."

Each morning, Ali wakes at dawn to pray in the house where he is hiding. His family remains in the capital. By phone, he lectures his oldest, son Saad, who has the arrogance of most 18-year-olds who think they're too old to listen to their parents. He tries to explain his absence to his young daughter, 9-year-old Rafain, who cries during his rare and brief visits to Baghdad. She always asks if she can go with him. He always says no.

South of Baghdad, Mustafa Kamal Shibeeb, a former leader of the Sons of Iraq, had planned to run in the election but was forced out as a candidate. He, too, was accused of loyalties to the Baath Party, even though 17 people from his tribe had been executed under Hussein.

Shibeeb said he feels abandoned by the U.S. military, targeted by members of al-Qaeda in Iraq and sidelined by the current government. He voted Sunday, and he knows that the results will determine his future, but he is not optimistic.

"The Americans let us down, and this government did not adopt us," he said. "I, the people who worked with me and our families -- we are going to leave and find a place that will receive us."

A special correspondent in Diyala contributed to this report.

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