Iraq struggles with lopsided provincial governments

Times Staff Writer

The long delay in holding provincial elections in Iraq has shut out Sunni Arab majorities and exacerbated sectarian tensions in provincial capitals such as Kirkuk and Baqubah and in mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad.

A Sunni boycott of elections in 2005 has left the religious sect underrepresented in some provincial councils and has allowed Shiite politicians to dominate.

The stark political imbalance is a key driver of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in some of Iraq’s most strategically important and heterogeneous cities, Iraqi politicians and U.S. officials say.

Plans to draft legislation to hold new local balloting have been put off indefinitely by the Shiite-dominated parliament, intensifying tensions with Sunni Arabs who have been pushing for new elections.

Sunni Arabs constitute at least 40% of Baghdad’s population, but only one of the 51 members of the local provincial council is Sunni.


“The absence of Sunnis on the council has an absolutely negative effect,” said Azhar Abdul Majeed Hussein, the sole Sunni council member in Baghdad. “When Sunnis turn to the council for even simple needs, they find they have no representatives. This makes them feel marginalized. There is a clear sectarian spirit in the council.”

That sectarian spirit extends to the greater Iraqi society, Iraqi leaders and U.S. officials say, overlaying the combustible political strife.

Sunni Arabs are also underrepresented in Diyala province, northeast of the capital, where they are believed to make up 60% of the population but hold only about one-third of the provincial seats. In the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, capital of Al Tamim province, Sunni Arabs and Shiites constitute about 25% of the population but only 15% of the Kurdish-dominated provincial council.

Diyala Deputy Gov. Aouf Rahoumi said Shiite domination of the provincial council, which sits in Baqubah, had had a direct effect on security because Shiites had, as a partial result of this political strength, also come to dominate the army and police in the area.

“The governor is Shiite, the police commander is Shiite, the army commander is Shiite, the major crimes unit commander is Shiite, the intelligence commander is Shiite, most of the division commanders are Shiite,” Rahoumi, a Sunni, said earlier this year. “So there are problems because they are a minority ruling over a majority.”

Many Sunni Arabs boycotted the January 2005 elections to protest the American-led occupation and U.S. military actions in Fallouja, a city in Al Anbar province to the west, and other Sunni areas. The result was Shiite domination of local government even where the sect is not the dominant population group. National elections in December of that year alleviated some of the problems caused by the boycott, but new elections for provincial councils, which coordinate with national agencies to provide gasoline, health, education, sanitation, security and other local services, have been postponed.

A slow-going process

U.S. officials have described provincial elections as one of several benchmarks, along with reduction of violence in Baghdad and approval of a hydrocarbon resource sharing law, by which they are gauging the progress of Iraq’s national government.

Many U.S. officials and Iraqi leaders say new provincial elections would give Sunni Arabs a greater stake in the success of Iraq and help rein in the insurgency.

But the Shiite-led national government has been slow to act. Shiite leaders say they want to hold new provincial elections, and say procedural requirements have prevented them from passing a law to schedule a date. Parliament has gone for weeks at a time without achieving a quorum.

Sunni Arab politicians and U.S. officials, however, say they suspect the Shiites are stalling, biding their time, even as Shiite militias and Sunni Arab insurgents use violent gerrymandering tactics to carve out sectarian constituencies that will preserve their power.

Sunni Arab insurgents in Baqubah appeared to gain the upper hand late last year despite an influx of Shiite militiamen and heavy-handed tactics by the Shiite-dominated security forces there.

Diyala Gov. Raed Rashid Jawad, a Shiite, said Sunni Arabs shouldn’t be so disgruntled about their lack of representation because they elected to boycott the local balloting.

“They chose to boycott the elections, and now they are sorry about this,” Jawad said. “Still, they have many people in the local government. My deputy is a Sunni. There are Sunni police commanders. The mayor of Baqubah is a Sunni.”

Sunnis acknowledge that they are represented in Diyala’s government, but they say the positions are token and not in proportion to their group’s share of the province’s population.

Complaints of corruption

A few Sunni Arabs opposed boycotting the elections; some Sunnis were later appointed by Shiite elected officials at the insistence of U.S. officials seeking to balance out local government bodies. But Sunnis and U.S. officials agree that these efforts did not go far enough to achieve equitable representation.

In Baghdad, Salim Abdullah Jabouri, a Sunni parliament member, complained that the provincial council was dysfunctional and corrupt.

“The activities of the Baghdad Provincial Council are negligible,” he said. “The council uses the current security problems as an excuse for tardiness. Insecurity is a peg where all faults and delays are hung. The council is entrusted with huge amounts of money, but no one knows where the money has gone.”

A U.S. advisor to the Baghdad council said Shiite domination of the legislative body had been tempered by the members’ willingness to consult with neighborhood-based advisory committees. The advisor also said the council had worked to equitably deliver sanitation services, public works and welfare payments.

But the advisor acknowledged that many neighborhood committees had struggled even to meet because of the security situation, and that only the Shiite-dominated provincial council had the power to disburse funds or authorize projects.

Even in the Shiites’ strongholds of southern Iraq, where sectarian demographics justify their domination of provincial councils, the legislative bodies have been buffeted by intra-Shiite discord as rival political factions vie for local control of political posts and state funding.

U.S. and Iraqi troops recently arrested two Shiite members of the Wasit Provincial Council for their alleged involvement in the smuggling of improvised explosives. And intra-Shiite conflicts have beset the Basra Provincial Council, which is nearly evenly divided between powerful Shiite political parties: the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is affiliated with the Badr Brigade, a powerful Shiite militia; and Al Fadila al Islamiya, or the Islamic Virtue Party, which has at times been allied with radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s movement and his Al Mahdi militia.

In mixed areas, Sunni Arab leaders say, the squelching of Sunnis’ political options feeds the insurgency. In Kirkuk and Baqubah, Sunni Arab provincial council members have boycotted proceedings for weeks, further undermining the councils’ credibility.

Sheik Abdulla Sami Assi, a Sunni Arab council member in Kirkuk, said that without greater provincial representation, disenfranchised residents would continue to take matters into their own hands.

“We hope that people will not start committing violent acts,” he said. “We hope things will be solved in a diplomatic manner.”

Insurgents in the streets

In Baqubah, Sunni Arab insurgents earlier this year held ad hoc street parades as Sunni residents waved from their doorsteps in support. The parades occurred at a time when Diyala’s security forces were a shambles, with Iraqi soldiers in the province mired in accusations over human rights abuses against Sunni Arabs, and the police overwhelmed and scattered among several shattered stations.

Abdul Jabar Ali Ibrahim, chief of the Diyala tribal council, said the insurgents had exploited Sunni alienation from the political process.

“We need neutral security apparatuses to maintain law and order without bias to this or that side,” Ibrahim said. “The appearance of these armed men in the streets indicates the absence of the governmental institutions for the ordinary man in the street -- he cannot tell whether these armed men are good or bad. He only knows that he is seeing them in his neighborhood, but not the government.”

Times staff writers Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Zeena Kareem contributed to this report.