Iraqi election nears but no guarantee of sharing power offered to Sunnis

 A.H. Jaffor Ullah


The election for Iraq�s parliament is slated for January 30, 2005, which is only two weeks from now and it is quite uncertain whether the election will be free of violence or whether the majority of the Sunnis will boycott the election.  If a handful of Sunni candidates run from the �Sunni Triangle�, they may be elected but won�t share power with the dominant Shia parliamentarians.  The Sunnis who were accustomed to be in power for decades because they controlled the ruling Baath Party now realizes that their heydays are gone and going forward they will remain as a minority power in Iraq.  This baleful thought is causing concern among Sunni leaders and their followers.  What are they going to do about it?  Is there any formula through which they could share power with the dominant Shia politicians from the rest of the country?  For some thoughts on this, please peruse the rest of this article.

   Bad news travels fast.  U.S. and Iraqi officials will not guarantee Iraq�s restive Sunnis in the �Golden Triangle� a share of power when the future Iraqi parliament convenes.  This decision by U.S. and Iraqi officials threatens to make matters worse in the �Sunni Triangle� as ethnic strife may intensify only to mar the legitimacy of Iraq�s next elected government.

   Violence in Iraq has already intensified weeks before the planned parliamentarian election of January 30, 2005.  A day earlier, gunmen killed a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior and revered Shiite Muslim cleric, along with the aide�s son and four bodyguards in a town south of Baghdad, which is inside the �Sunni Triangle�.  This should be indicative of who did the killing.  The Sunni gunmen wanted to send a chilling message to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

   Insurgents are now desperate to foil Iraq�s upcoming elections.  By assassinating the head Shiite clergy�s aid and others from Shiite community appears to deliver a message to al-Sistani, who strongly supports the election.  Recently, we also read that the Sunni insurgents have targeted electoral workers and candidates.  The insurgents want an absolute chaos in Iraq right before the election.  In a bid to draw attention from international news organizations they carried out today (January 13, 2005) a kidnapping operation in central Baghdad; in the process they killed six Iraqis while abducting a Turkish businessman, who reportedly ran a construction company aiding the U.S.-led occupation authorities.

   Why is it that the Sunnis in �Golden Triangle� are so upset about the hosting of January 30 elections?  The election math scares the hell out of them.  You see, Shiites make up 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people and are expected to dominate the 275-member National Assembly in the first free elections held in Iraq since it became independent in 1932.  As I have pointed it out earlier, some Sunnis, who are 20 percent of the population, fear a loss of the dominance and privilege they enjoyed for decades under Baathist regimes.  Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Sunni clerics have called for an all out boycott. 

   I read today in the Wall Street Journal a pre-election analysis of the ground reality in Iraq.  According to the journal, an internal U.S. estimate indicates that the Sunnis are likely to fare very poorly in the elections.  With violence escalating in the Sunni belt, many residents (read Sunnis) will opt not to cast their votes because of anger at the U.S.  An estimate by the U.S. officials put the number of parliamentary seats to be won by the Sunnis at 6%, a figure well below 20%, which should be the correct figure if most Sunnis go to the poll. 

   The consequence of such dismal showing in the next election by the Sunni politicians would mean that the country�s Shiite majority who account for 60% of the population would disproportionately dominate Iraq�s next government.  The decision by the Sunnis to remain absent from the election would give the Shiites extra seats in the parliament.  The U.S. and Iraqi officials ruled out guaranteeing Sunni representation in the parliament.  In other words, there will be no quota system for any ethnic group.  This policy will favor the Shiites.  It is a small wonder that Ali-al-Sistani is ecstatic about this election and he is asking the authorities not to delay the election.

   Earlier, U.S. and Iraqi authorities thought that Sunnis should be given a stake in Iraq�s next government even if it means handing them a few extra parliamentary seats.  However, this idea of guaranteeing Sunni representation in the parliament was ruled out because such move would run counter to the idea of forming the next government through democracy.  Besides, this would violate Iraq�s temporary constitution. 

   The decision of not guaranteeing Sunni representation came amidst �an array of problems threatening the planned balloting of for a 275-person national assembly charged with governing the country while drafting a permanent constitution,� as the WSJ reporter wrote in his article.

   Iraq�s Sunnis know it fully well that in any election that is based on �one-person one vote,� they cannot have majority in the parliament.  Thus, Sunni militants took to the street from early 2004.  The Sunni-led violence has escalated so much so that interim Iraqi Prime minister, Ayad Allawi, had said in early January 2005 that several predominantly Sunni areas of the country would be too dangerous for Iraqis to cast their ballots on January 30 election.  The Sunni clerics also realized that by now, Ali al-Sistani�s followers would be in the catbird seat of power in Baghdad.  Thus, they also gave their clarion call for boycotting the January 30 election.  On top of it, Iraq�s largest Sunni political party has decided to pull out of the race.  Since the Sunnis of Iraq saw the proverbial writings on the wall, they decided to be no part of this election.  Nonetheless, U.S. and interim Iraqi government have decided to conduct this election rain or shine. 

   Under this dire backdrop (for Sunnis), many Sunnis including two politicians have demanded that the election be delayed for a minimum of six months to improve the law and order situation in the Sunni belt.  This extra time will allow the Sunni leaders to persuade their people to participate in the voting process.  Several members of Mr. Allawi�s government and some Kurdish leaders echoed this sentiment.  However, Shiites clergies including the grand Ayatollah of Iraq want the election to go through on January 30, 2005.  The Bush Administration also wants to see the election held on the scheduled date for it said that delaying the vote would hand a victory to the Sunni insurgents; this delay would trigger more violence.

   The issue of how to deal with Iraq�s Sunni minority is one of the thorniest and complicated issues faced by U.S. and Iraqi policymakers.  In the last four decades, the minority Sunni leaders controlled every aspect of Iraqi life.  Saddam Hussein along with many Baath party leaders had monopolized all economical and political power in Iraq.  Saddam�s army had officers from Sunni sect while the foot soldiers were recruited from Shia communities.  The Sunnis from �Golden Triangle� had the arrogance of being the masters and they are dreading about becoming powerless under the Shiite dominated government. 

   The Sunnis have been hesitant to join the election process for they fear that their newfound minority status will be formalized and it will remain so as long as the Shiites could form the government year after year.  The U.S. planners have no idea how to work out a formula to remove the genuine apprehension that is in the minds of Sunni folks.  This inability by the U.S. administration to work a plan to include Sunnis in the power structure is causing a concern amongst not only Sunni intellectuals but also U.S. experts on Iraq.  Mr. Larry Diamond of Stanford University�s Hoover Institution who served in the U.S. occupation authority in 2004 said, �The ongoing exclusion of Sunnis from the decision-making process in Iraq will further polarize and inflame the situation, increase their sense of marginalization, and potentially grease the slide towards civil war.  It is one thing to tell Sunnis they won�t rule the country anymore, but it is another to say they won�t even have a seat at the table.�

   A handful of Sunni politicians will win in the election.  These Sunni politicians have aligned with political parties controlled by Shiite politicians.  If all Sunnis would have voted from the �Golden Triangle�, they would secure 55 seats but under this dismal scenario of boycott by the Sunnis, they might capture only 15 to 30 seats.  U.S. expects the Shiite run government would offer important cabinet positions to Sunnis and allow them to join the committee that will draft the future constitution.  The other possibility would be appointing ministers from Sunni communities even they have not been elected to the national assembly.  In short, everyone wants to see more participation by the Sunni politicians at the national level.  However, the ground reality will put a roadblock to it.  Under this scenario, more violence will erupt in Iraq in post election days and country may head for a protracted civil war.

   In summary, the much talked about national election in Iraq is only two weeks away but the Sunnis have no guarantee of sharing power at the center.  U.S. and interim Iraqi government have not come up with the idea to reserve seats for the Sunnis in the parliament fearing that doing so would violate the democratic process.  The Sunnis are expected to win only 15-30 seats out of 275 parliamentary seats.  That is precisely the reason many Sunnis would boycott the election.  The Shiites on the other hand would like to see that the election is held on January 30, 2005.  After years of subjugation by the minority sect, this is the first opportunity Shiites would have to govern the nation.  It is a small wonder that the grand Ayatollah of Iraq, Ali-al-Sistani, warned the U.S. not to delay the election.  It remains to be seen whether the insurgency-led civil war intensifies after the election in the event majority of the Sunnis abstain from casting their ballots.  Therefore, stay tuned because more is yet to come.


Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA