Iraq election tangle stokes fears of new violence

Sunni voters took a leap of faith and threw their support behind Iraqiya, a coalition led by a secular Shi'ite preaching nonsectarianism.

April 3, 2010 19:22
3 minute read.
Elections in Iraq (AP).

iraq elections 311. (photo credit: AP)


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BAGHDAD — For the first time since the 2003 overthrow of their patron, Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Sunni Arabs are on the winning side. But the triumph may be short-lived.

In the parliamentary election a month ago, Sunni voters took a leap of faith and threw their support behind Iraqiya, a coalition led by a secular Shi'ite preaching nonsectarianism. Iraqiya emerged the narrow winner, with 91 seats to the 89 won by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's bloc.

Minority Sunnis voting for a bloc led by a member of the Shi'ite majority — despite deep and often violent animosities - might have been expected to lay a solid foundation for reconciliation, something the US has worked hard to bring about but with little success.

Instead, there are fears it could be the prelude to a long spell of political instability and even renewed violence.

With possible Iranian encouragement, al-Maliki's bloc is flirting with the more doctrinaire Shi'ite forces that came third in the election, and if they can patch together a majority in the 325-member parliament, Iraqiya would be left out in the cold despite having topped the poll.

Sunni Arabs already suspect an Iranian-backed scheme to rob them and sideline Iraqiya's leader, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

"There will be grave consequences that can spark sectarian clashes if Iran succeeds in its endeavor to exclude Allawi," analyst Hoda al-Husseini wrote Thursday in the daily Asharq al-Awsat, a London-based, Saudi-owned newspaper.

That view is echoed on Iraq's Sunni streets, where Allawi, America's favored candidate for prime minister in 2004, is considered more inclined to put the country's national interests above sectarian ones.

"We see that the loyalty of Allawi's coalition is to Iraq, not Iran," said Mohammed al-Aazami, a 45-year-old grocer in Baghdad. "If Allawi is pushed out, Iraq will fall again deep in the hole of sectarian conflict."

It is not surprising that Iraq's Sunnis feel that way. At least 80 percent of Iraqiya's 91 successful candidates are Sunnis, compared to only a handful in al-Maliki's State of Law coalition that unconvincingly marketed itself as nonsectarian.

A senior security official said he saw no threat of a repeat of 2006-2007, when sectarian violence killed tens of thousands and drove hundreds of thousands from their homes. He said the police and army are strong enough to prevent it.

Instead he feared a bombing campaign like the one that began last August and targeted government offices, killing hundreds. Al-Maliki's government blamed those attacks on al-Qaida and Saddam loyalists.

The March 7 election revealed the latest in a series of pragmatic moves by Sunnis to reinvent themselves in an Iraq dominated by Shiites since the 2003 US invasion.

They reacted to the US occupation and their loss of superiority under Saddam by mounting an insurgency that plunged Iraq into chaos. Then many of them switched sides and joined the US military in the fight against al-Qaida after the terror network in large part hijacked their movement. The hard-won victory of the Sahwa, as the Sunni groups are known, over al-Qaida changed the course of the Iraq war, bolstered their morale and led them to expect a fairer deal from al-Maliki.

Instead, the Shiite-dominated government arrested dozens of Sahwa leaders and fell short of fully implementing promises to integrate them in the security forces.

Now they believe al-Maliki is again out to dispossess them by various maneuvers, including demanding an election recount and seeking an alliance with another Shiite bloc to deny Allawi, as the top seat-winner, the first crack at forming a government.

Already, representatives from the two Shiite blocs — al-Maliki's State of Law and the Iraqi National Alliance — met last week in Tehran to discuss a merger, according to politicians close to the talks. They were in Tehran ostensibly to celebrate the Iranian new year.

The INA is led by followers of fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who won at least 39 seats, and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, an Iranian-backed party. Opposition to the merger by the Sadrists is believed to be placing a major hurdle for the proposed merger.

"If they want to sideline us, then they had better do it in broad daylight, not in backrooms," said Hussein al-Shaalan, a senior Shiite politician in Iraqiya and a member of the bloc's negotiating team with other coalitions.

"Iran is a Muslim neighbor," he said, but Shiite Iraqis "going there to try to cut us off is not acceptable."

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