Iraq’s Sunnis seen divided in coming election


Iraq’s Sunnis have failed to form a united bloc to contest the coming election and instead have joined cross-sectarian alliances that may have stark implications for the Sunni Islamist insurgency, analysts say.

A Sunni boycott of the last national poll in 2005 and the rise to dominance of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority boosted resentment at their loss of power following the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and helped fuel the still-active insurgency.

If Sunnis, who are believed to make up roughly 20 percent of the population, end up being better represented after the January parliamentary ballot, that resentment may wane. If they end up being sidelined, frustration may grow.

Ditching the sect-based politics that dominated Iraq after the 2003 invasion seems the best stance that Iraqis of all stripes, not just Sunnis, can adopt after 6-1/2 years of sectarian war and as U.S. forces prepare to withdraw by 2012.

“But at the same time this could lead to depression among Sunni voters when they find out there is no longer a unified Sunni bloc,” said Baghdad university analyst Saad al-Hadithi.

“I am afraid this may persuade them not to take part in large numbers in the election, like what happened in 2005.”

The bloodshed between Sunnis and Shi’ites that killed tens of thousands after the U.S. invasion has largely abated, but insurgents including Sunni Islamist al Qaeda continue to stage spectacular attacks in an effort to reignite sectarian carnage and to undermine the Shi’ite-led government.

Many Iraqis fear the run-up to the vote will be a catalyst for more violence as rivals jostle for control of Iraq’s oil reserves, and foes of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki seek to weaken his claim to have presided over improved security.

U.S. military officials say they are just as nervous about the period after the ballot, when the relative strengths of rival factions will become apparent and bartering over the prime ministerial post and cabinet positions begins.

“While one should applaud cross-sectarian lists, the absence of a coherent Sunni Arab voice could cost this community dearly in political terms,” said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group think-tank.

“Such weakness could only be exploited by outside actors not beholden to the political game, such as former regime elements.”

ARAB LOBBY FOR UNITED FRONT

Maliki had intended to co-opt leading Sunni politicians into a broad-based electoral alliance, but failed.

Sunni and Shi’ite politicians said Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar appear to have lobbied for Iraq’s Sunni leaders to form a united front against Maliki. They also failed.

Instead, prominent anti-al Qaeda tribal sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha signed up with Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, a Shi’ite, and Sunni independent Saleh al-Mutlaq allied with former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite.

The Iraqi Islamic Party, which is the one Sunni group likely to campaign on a sectarian platform, has largely fallen apart.

The decision by Iraq’s Sunnis to join cross-sectarian lists reflects a general trend in Iraqi politics as voters reject the overt sectarianism that led to civil war and demand a political discourse focused on national unity and services.[ID:nMUH136843]

“They have done this because they think it is a strategy that will resonate with the electorate and thereby provide them with more votes than a sectarian strategy,” said Reidar Visser, editor of the Iraq-focused website historiae.org.

But it may also reflect dangerous fissures among Sunnis, and also spur Sunni anger if for any reason their Shi’ite partners abandon them after the vote.

“It is not that Sunni Arab politicians decided not to form a unified coalition; it’s that they cannot decide on anything jointly,” Hiltermann said.

Thompson Reuters

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