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Debate on Iraq Vote Mirrors Divisions

Times Staff Writers

Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority insists that elections, set for Jan. 30, must be held on schedule.

The Sunni Arab minority demands that the vote be postponed. The Kurds also wouldn’t mind a delay but are willing to go with the flow and seem to be playing both sides.

And Prime Minister Iyad Allawi? Although he says he’s “determined” to have the elections on time, the top man in the U.S.-backed interim government is sympathetic to -- some say eager for -- a postponement.

“This is Iraqi politics,” said Jaber Habib, a political science professor at Baghdad University, chuckling at the surfeit of competing agendas and political double-speak. “In our own way, this is normal.”

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The swirling debate about whether to conduct the parliamentary elections as scheduled despite a simmering insurgency underscores the ethnic, political and religious complexities of the modern Iraqi state.

For more than three decades, Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party managed to keep the puzzle together with a ruthless police apparatus that favored Sunnis and tolerated no dissent or meaningful expression of ethnic and religious autonomy. But the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Hussein’s regime opened the chance for Iraq’s diverse peoples to air their long-repressed -- and possibly incompatible -- aspirations.

The stakes in the vote are high. Iraqis are to elect a 275-member national assembly that will choose a president and prime minister and oversee the drafting of a constitution. Voters are expected to go to the polls later in 2005 to approve or reject the document.

Sunni Muslims, many of whom view the elections as little more than a means to officially end their supremacy in Iraq, fear that the protracted violence will exclude many of them from voting and thus exacerbate their loss of power. Voter registration, which began Nov. 1 in most of Iraq, has yet to start in Al Anbar province, a Sunni-majority area north and west of Baghdad that has been at the heart of the insurgency.

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Behind the Sunni temporizing, many observers argue, is a resolute refusal by some to accept a Shiite-dominated nation. Some fundamentalist Sunni Muslims view Shiites as apostates; others deride them as uneducated hicks beholden to Iranian ayatollahs.

Mainstream Sunni parties, such as the Iraqi Islamic Party, are spearheading the call for a six-month delay. Other Sunni groups, such as the influential Muslim Scholars Assn., have called for an outright boycott of the elections as long as the foreign occupation casts its shadow.

But some wonder whether putting the election off would make a difference. After all, there is no guarantee that Sunni areas would be pacified in the interim or boycotting hard-liners would be persuaded to participate.

Shiite Muslims, who make up perhaps 60% of Iraq’s population, are adamant that the vote should proceed as planned. After decades of second-class status, Shiite political and religious leaders view this moment as their chance to wield power commensurate with their numbers.

“We cannot take back this position for any reason,” Mohammed Hussein Hakim, a spokesman for a leading ayatollah in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, declared this weekend.

From the Shiites’ standpoint, the time for compromise is long past. Shiite leaders have been demanding a vote almost from the moment Hussein’s statue was toppled in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in April 2003.

Under pressure from Shiite leaders, L. Paul Bremer III, the former U.S. administrator who arrived in Baghdad with grandiose plans for a multiyear transition to democracy, was forced to accept a January deadline for the vote. The timeframe was enshrined in the statute governing the hand-over of sovereignty to Iraqi officials in June of this year.

Leading the push for the vote to be held as scheduled is Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the nation’s preeminent Shiite leader and possibly Iraq’s most powerful individual. The septuagenarian cleric has emerged from seclusion to proclaim voting the duty of every Muslim. His message is clear: No more delays.

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U.S. officials, aware of Sistani’s demonstrated ability to marshal massive demonstrations with a word, have sought to accommodate his views. In recent weeks, U.S. officials from President Bush on down have called for Iraq to adhere to the Jan. 30 plan.

But if Sistani could be convinced that the vote should be delayed, the Bush administration would probably acquiesce -- and might breathe a sigh of relief. It remains unclear, though, whether any emissaries have sought to approach the reclusive Sistani or his aides to persuade him to support a postponement.

The role of Kurdish parties in the electoral debate, meanwhile, has been especially hard to pin down.

Unlike the other political players in Iraq, the Kurds have years of experience with a form of political independence and even international diplomacy. In their northern Iraq stronghold, they enjoyed autonomy, under international protection, from Hussein’s regime for more than a decade before the 2003 invasion.

The Kurds’ two key goals are to maintain a large measure of autonomy and establish demographic and political control over the oil-rich Kirkuk region, an ethnic battleground also claimed by Arabs and ethnic Turks.

On both counts, the mostly Sunni Kurds remain leery of Shiite ambitions, fearing an end to their quasi-independence. Shiite and Sunni Arab leaders, on the other hand, distrust the Kurds because of their coziness with Washington and remain wary of Kurdish power plays.

The Kurds were initially supportive of the Jan. 30 date. Then, last week, it seemed that they had joined with Sunni Arabs in calling for a delay. Now, the Kurdish position appears to have shifted back to support for a January poll.

“Obviously, there are logistical, security and political impediments as we approach that date,” interim Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, a Kurd, told the British Broadcasting Corp. “But Iraq is a challenge.”

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Despite the public waffling, the Kurds would probably benefit from a delay. It would allow them more time to consolidate control of Kirkuk, where Kurdish parties are facilitating the arrival of Kurdish settlers.

Allawi, meanwhile, seems trapped between the desire for a delay and his duty as head of the U.S.-backed interim leadership to stand steadfastly for Jan. 30.

A longtime exile with no real grass-roots base, Allawi would probably welcome an extension of his term as prime minister, giving him time to court more support. Right now his popularity is low, in large part because his efforts to quell the insurgency through a combination of bluster, military force and cajoling Sunni tribal leaders have thus far been a failure.

As political leaders debate whether to postpone the balloting, organizers are forging ahead with the nuts and bolts of preparation, such as voter sign-up and party registration.

The threat of violence has been factored into every step of the process, including voter registration. Using a database culled from the Ministry of Trade welfare lists, most eligible Iraqis have essentially been automatically registered.

Families receive a form listing information for each eligible voter in the household; they need visit registration centers only to correct inaccuracies. The idea was to avoid forcing people to come to the centers and thus make them targets.

At a Baghdad registration center situated in a primary school, freshly installed concrete barriers block the path of potential car bombers. The staff, fearing publicity, nearly panics when a visitor identifies himself as a reporter.

U.S. troops have pledged to maintain a politically correct distance from polling places, but they will be present because Iraqi forces lack the manpower and expertise to guard all 9,000 voting stations nationwide.

“People are going to get hurt,” said an electoral expert with experience in Iraq. “There’s going to be intimidation of voters and of political entities to take a position or not take a position.”

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Times staff writers Paul Richter in Washington and Suhail Ahmed in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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