Their leaders called for a boycott. But now, after the historic vote, Sunnis wonder how they'll fit into post-election Iraq.
ADNAN R. KHANFebruary142005
THE MORNING AFTER
Their leaders called for a boycott. But now, after the historic vote, Sunnis wonder how they'll fit into post-election lraq.
ADNAN R. KHAN
SOMEWHERE SOUTH OF BAGHDAD, the road to democracy seems to lose its way. Well after you’ve left behind the postered streets of the post-election Iraqi capital, the highway becomes a dirt track snaking through the verdant farmlands between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, running parallel to ancient canal networks and past mud-brown farmhouses that look as if they have grown right out of the land. This is tribal Iraq, where democracy faces a real test. But with Iraq’s first multi-party election in decades written
into the history books, it’s through places like this, in the Sunni Arab heartland, that the road to democratic governance must go: through towns like Latifiye and Mahmudiyah, which have become, for all intents and purposes, no-go zones for foreigners and the foreign ideas they bring with them. The area is rife with anti-coalition fighters. Roadside bombs and ambushes are almost daily events. Here is where kidnappers are out in full force, the opportunists who equate a foreign face with dollar signs. It’s big business these days.
Confronting the anarchy in the Sunni regions of Iraq is one of the biggest challenges facing any incoming government. Will the outcome of the Jan. 30 elections unite or divide? The initial indications seem to point to the latter, with Shia parties supported by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani poised for a landslide victory, at the expense of the Sunni minority who largely stayed away from the polls at the behest of their leaders. Framing the vote as a moment of triumph
it is in our nature to fight. When we become too old, then our children will take over.” Only a handful of the 15,000 or so inhabitants of Latifiye voted, Mahmoud says. “But the low turnout had nothing to do with fear, or the boycott by the Sunni clerics,” he adds. “These are poor farmers—they don’t care who leads the country as long as they are left alone to their traditions.” The presence of foreign troops on their land is an affront to the tribal codes of the locals. And democracy will not change that, the sheik insists—only a withdrawal of foreign troops.
As afternoon prayers come to a close, other members of the town council arrive on the front yard of the sheik’s home and sit on lawn chairs. The council office was levelled two months ago during fighting between insurgents and U.S. troops, so meetings are now held here, with stray dogs for an audience. No one seems especially interested in what the election results will mean. More pressing is the dilemma of how to acquire suitable farming implements. But
for the Iraqi people, or comparing it to the fall of the Berlin Wall, as some overzealous commentators have done, is simplistic. There is more to the picture than ink-stained fingers and voter turnout, inspiring though that was in some places.
In Sunni-dominated Latifiye, the message is clear: elections are only a sidebar to the larger narrative of a struggle for survival. Sunnis here continue to use the language of the besieged, “ft will never end,” says the town’s sheik, 57-year-old Mahmoud alJanabi. “If a person comes onto our land,
mentioning the Shia success on election day does elicit a burst of opinion. The consensus is that the vote was nothing more than a reflection of the will of the Shia leadership—a victory for religious faith instead of democratic principles. “The Shia voted because the clerics told them to: it was a religious duty,” says Mahmoud.
Among those Sunnis who did cast a ballot, fear was the overwhelming impetus. “I don’t want to see Shias dominate the political scene,” said Wa’il al Janabi, a 54-year-old retired army officer, after he left a polling
station in al-Mashtal, a religiously mixed district in eastern Baghdad. Some Sunnis think their boycott was a mistake. “I don’t understand why the clerics boycotted the election,” said 24-year-old Sunni voter Amar Muhammad al-Shakhily, a master’s student at Nahrain University in Baghdad. “I think they were only worried about losing their own power, and not the lives of their people. Now they’ve lost everything.” Among educated Sunnis in Baghdad, there is a growing demand for a legitimate Sunni political movement. The broad-based Sunni
support enjoyed by insurgent groups in the past is on the wane thanks to nearly two years of bloodshed, a deteriorating standard of living—and a creeping concern among
DEALING with the anarchy in the Sunni regions of the country is a big challenge for any incoming government
some that their leaders have failed them.
Those at the top have sensed the shift: in the days following the vote, the Association of Muslim Scholars, Iraq’s leading Sunni organization, appeared disoriented by the apparent success of the election. A Feb. 2 announcement, designed to save face, characterized their boycott as only a statement to their followers, not an order: people had been free to go to the polls if they wished. The association subsequently went a step further, accusing the occupying coalition of willfully preventing Sunnis from voting.
“There were some Sunni areas north of Baghdad that did not receive voter registration cards,” says Mo’ayad al-Adhami, the imam at the Abu Hanifa mosque in Adhamiya. “So even the Sunnis who wanted to vote couldn’t.” (An announcement by the Iraq Electoral Commission last week confirmed that the draconian security measures on election day may have prevented tens of thousands of voters from casting their ballots in various provinces around the country.)
The Sunni clerics’ association now says it is willing to work with the new government, on the condition that it be considered only transitional and its powers limited, especially in the drafting of a new constitution. At the Abu Hanifa mosque, the most revered Sunni institution in Baghdad, situated at the foot of the al-Aama bridge on the west bank of the Tigris opposite the predominantly Shia district of Khadimiya, Imam al
Adhami accuses the Shia leadership of following a Baathiststyle program that places sectarian interests ahead of national unity. Sunnis say they will not accept an executive controlled
by Shias. Shias counter that Sunnis must abide by the decisions of the elected National Assembly, the first task of which will be choosing that executive.
Other political jockeying is also underway. Among the various party leaders, vying for power began even before the ballots were counted. Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, insists that a Kurd (meaning of course himself) must be appointed either president or prime minister. Ahmed Chalabi, the discredited former darling of the CIA who ran under the Shia coalition, has made it clear he wants to be prime minister. But in places like Latifiye, no one seems interested in these power struggles—they have more pressing issues. “Who cares who leads the government,” declares Mahmoud. “We have fighters flooding into the town and fields from all over Iraq and we can’t control them.” As a stray dog ambles through the yard, the sheik’s grandchildren pelt it with rocks and it darts off into the potato fields. “You can go into town if you like,” Mahmoud says, “but I cannot guarantee your safety. And if I can’t guarantee your safety, do you think a democratically elected government in Baghdad can?”
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