Shiite Muslim political and religious leaders insisted Saturday that Iraq’s parliamentary election must be held as scheduled in January, rejecting calls from Sunnis and ethnic Kurds to postpone the landmark vote six months.
The Shiites’ position bolsters the interim government and U.N.-appointed electoral commission, which said Saturday they intended to proceed with balloting on Jan. 30.
The deepening debate over the election date is threatening to aggravate sectarian tensions in a nation already fractured by a raging insurgency that has killed more than 1,230 U.S. troops and many more Iraqis.
The prospect of a delay has outraged leaders of Iraq’s Shiite majority, who view the vote as a decisive means of political empowerment after decades of repression by the long-dominant Sunni minority.
Jawad Maliki, a senior official with the Dawa Party, one of the principal Shiite groups, said any postponement would violate the country’s interim constitution and diminish the credibility of the political process. It would also embolden insurgents, he said.
“It is a message to the terrorists that they are victorious,” Maliki said. “This will encourage them.”
A joint statement released Saturday by 42 parties, including Dawa and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, another key Shiite party, said any delay would be illegal.
A spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Said Hakim, one of the nation’s most prominent clerics and a member of the Shiite religious leadership headed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, also said a delay was unacceptable.
Elections are “the most legitimate way on the international level to express the will of the people,” said Hakim’s son, Mohammed Hussein Hakim. “All parties have agreed on this date, and we cannot take back this position for any reason.”
A diverse collection of political groups requested the six-month delay after meeting in Baghdad on Friday.
Participants in the gathering, arranged by elder statesman Adnan Pachachi, included Sunni religious parties, tribal groups and a women’s organization. Also attending were the two largest Kurdish political parties, both longtime U.S. allies who until recently had endorsed holding elections as scheduled.
Insurgent attacks and shaky government control over large areas of the country -- along with fears of a broad boycott by Sunni groups -- were cited as primary reasons for requesting the delay.
Organizers acknowledge that violence in predominantly Sunni areas north and west of the capital has seriously delayed election preparations. Voter registration efforts, scheduled to begin Nov. 1, haven’t even started in Al Anbar province, home to Fallouja, Ramadi and other cities where insurgents have been strong.
In Mosul, a northern city where insurgents continue to make regular shows of strength, a warehouse full of registration forms was set ablaze this month.
Despite the violence, U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte said Saturday that elections could be held on time.
During a visit to Fallouja, where he viewed the large-scale destruction from the recent U.S.-led offensive to retake the city from insurgents, Negroponte predicted that even Al Anbar province would be secure enough to hold an inclusive vote.
“National elections will be taking place on 30 of January next year, and we want to do everything possible to create the conditions so that everyone who is eligible to vote in this country will be able to do so,” Negroponte said.
Thair Nakib, a spokesman for interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, said Saturday that the government was “determined to hold elections on time.” He shrugged off Friday’s request for a delay as a healthy sign of a newly democratic society.
Allawi, Nakib said, “hears [the parties’] opinion and expresses his own opinion to them.”
Iraq’s electoral commission said that it was still working toward the Jan. 30 date and that it did not have power to postpone the vote even if it wanted to.
“Legally, to be frank, we don’t have that ability,” said commission chief Hussein Hindawi, who added that any delay would have to be discussed by the commission, interim government, interim National Assembly and United Nations.
If the government insists on holding to the Jan. 30 date and many parties decide to boycott, the vote could be viewed as illegitimate by much of the Iraqi population.
A spokesman for Pachachi’s Independent Democratic Movement said Friday that it would participate in a January vote if necessary. But Tariq Hashemi of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country’s largest Sunni religious party and a longtime proponent of a delay, would not rule out the possibility of a boycott.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, an Arabic-language satellite news channel, Hashemi said that “everything will be open to discussion” if the vote proceeds in January.
Either way, election organizers say they face a monumental task.
“I’m pleasantly surprised that we haven’t come off the rails to date,” said an electoral expert with experience in Iraq, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Still, he said, a six-month delay wouldn’t necessarily improve the chances of success as long as the insurgency continues.
“In conditions of this kind of violence, these elections are going to be very deeply flawed,” he said. “They might still be worthwhile if they lead to the creation of a somewhat more acceptable, somewhat more legitimate government which is able to peel away some of the support of the extremists.”
Although Allawi has said Iraq will hold to the Jan. 30 date, the stance of his party, the Iraqi National Accord, has remained fuzzy.
Senior INA official Hani Idrees said Allawi and his party would not support a delay unless there was a broad national and international consensus for it. However, the presence of an INA representative at Friday’s conference fueled speculation that Allawi was trying to build support for a postponement.
Nakib, the government spokesman, said the INA representative attended only “to hear the opinion of the other parties” and did not sign off on the postponement request.
Last week, Minister of State Adnan Janabi, a senior INA official and close Allawi advisor, caused waves by endorsing a postponement.
At first, Janabi’s statement was taken by many as a sign of dissension within the interim government. But the election expert said Janabi’s comments now seem like an effort to bring the issue out into the open without leaving the prime minister politically vulnerable.
Allawi himself could benefit from a delay.
A longtime exile with questionable grass-roots support, he presumably could use an extension to consolidate power within the government.
The position of the two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, may prove critical in the debate. As recently as last week, both endorsed sticking to the election schedule enshrined in the interim constitution.
Their change of position lends crucial momentum to the pro-delay camp and is likely to be regarded among Shiites as a betrayal. Maliki, of the Dawa Party, said he was “surprised” by the Kurds’ change of heart.
Iraq’s Kurdish and Shiite political groups have, at times, viewed each other with intense distrust.
The Kurds are largely Sunni, but as an ethnic minority they were victimized under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Some Kurdish politicians regard the Shiite parties as vehicles for Iranian influence in Iraq.
Kurds could benefit from a delay in the election, particularly in consolidating their claim to the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk.
Many Kurds view Kirkuk as a future capital and economic heart of a long-desired independent Kurdish state. Since the fall of Hussein, Kurds have worked to establish demographic dominance over the Kirkuk region. Thousands of displaced Kurds who were forcibly relocated by Hussein have flooded in and forced out Arab residents.
Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Suheil Affan in Baghdad, special correspondent Saad Saadik in Najaf, and Times wire services contributed to this report.