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Iraq Report: October 31, 2005

31 October 2005, Volume 8, Number 36

AFTER LOSING REFERENDUM, MOST SUNNI ARABS SET THEIR SIGHTS ON ELECTIONS. Some Sunni Arab leaders disputed the official results of the 15 October referendum on the draft constitution on 25 October after the Iraqi Independent Election Commission (IECI) announced that the referendum had passed in 16 of Iraq's 18 governorates. And though at least one Sunni leader has called for a new referendum to be carried out in some Sunni-populated governorates, most groups appear to have accepted the referendum results -- albeit grudgingly -- and are now setting their sights on the December elections.

As it stands, Sunni Arab groups are divided between those willing to take part in the elections and those that boycott any participation as long as multinational forces remain in Iraq. That distinction aside, groups are further fractured by ideology and political goals that are weighted by nationalist or religious stands, which have thus far prevented them from forming any real challenge to the more dominant Shi'ite and Kurdish coalitions.

Sunnis Expected To Gain Seats

Sunni Arab parties are becoming more organized, though, and can be expected to raise their numbers in the National Assembly after the December elections. Since the next parliament will be responsible for making final changes to the draft constitution before it is ratified next year, Sunni Arabs must, out of necessity, work together to raise their numbers in parliament. The need to strengthen their representation in the parliament may help orchestrate a cohesive Sunni Arab platform.

But can they do it in time? Elections are slated for 15 December and, thus far, more than 197 parties and blocs have registered to take part in the election. Political parties have until 28 October to register.

Three major Sunni Arab groups, the Iraqi Islamic Party, The Iraqi National Dialogue Council, and the Iraqi People's Conference, announced on 26 October that they will contest elections as a bloc to be called the Iraqi Accordance Front.

Other Sunni Arab groups such as the Muslim Scholars Association will refuse to take part in the election. The association portrays itself as an advocate for nationalist and more observant Sunnis, and it claims that the political process is illegitimate because it began under the auspices of the U.S.-led occupation. By taking this position, the association has put its future in the hands of the "national resistance" and, whether intended or not, its fate lies with the insurgents who target civilians in pushing for civil war.

This week, the association objected to conditions set down by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari on the participation of his party in the reconciliation conference proposed by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa. Al-Ja'fari said that he would support the conference only if terrorist groups and former high-ranking Ba'athists were not invited to the conference.

Association spokesman Muhammad Bashar al-Faydi told Al-Jazeera on 25 October that al-Ja'fari's stipulation was unacceptable. "All of use are against terrorism and consider it a crime regardless of its forms. However, we must differentiate between the legitimate Iraqi resistance and terrorism. Had this differentiation been clear, we would not have a problem with what Dr, al-Ja'fari said," al-Faydi contended.

The Muslim Scholars Association boycotted the referendum on the draft constitution because it claimed the text of the draft, which advocates federalism, would lead to the eventual breakup of the country if Shi'ite Arabs formed a regional government in central and southern Iraq.

Although the referendum succeeded, Sunni Arabs will still have an opportunity to influence the final version of the permanent constitution thanks to an agreement forged earlier this month between the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Shi'ite and Kurdish leaderships that gives the next National Assembly four months to amend the document, after which another nationwide referendum will be held on the permanent constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 October 2005).

Reaction To The Referendum

Sunni Arab groups -- including the Iraqi Islamic Party, which supported a "yes" vote in the referendum -- challenged the vote count in the Ninawah Governorate (Mosul) on 25 October after the IECI said that 55 percent of voters in the Ninawah Governorate opposed the draft; Sunni Arab groups claimed that the "no" vote was much higher.

The 55 percent "no" vote in Ninawah was not enough to overcome the two-thirds threshold (67 percent) needed for the constitution to be defeated by voters in the governorate. If the draft had been rejected in Ninawah, the constitution would have failed according to the terms of the Transitional Administrative Law, which stipulated that the draft would have to be rejected by the majority of voters in three or more governorates to fail. Voters in the Salah Al-Din and Al-Anbar governorates rejected the constitution.

Iraqi Islamic Party Secretary-General Tariq al-Hashimi told Al-Jazeera television in a 25 October interview that his party has objected to the results on the basis that party observers witnessed transgressions by electoral officials in voting centers. He said that while his party supported a "yes" vote in the referendum, it did not support a distortion of the results. "The Iraqi Islamic Party is very careful to have the voters' will respected, whether they voted for or against" the draft constitution, he said.

Asked about allegations of fraud at voting centers, al-Hashimi told Al-Jazeera: "Through [its] observers the party submitted 250 complaints, varying from the performance of IECI employees to issues related to logistical matters, security violations, and objections over the handling of the vote count." He added that his party is upset because the IECI has yet to submit a response to the party's complaints. "We will continue to [object] until the IECI adequately replies," he told Al-Jazeera.

Questioning Wisdom Of Boycott

Al-Hashimi's party also released a statement on the referendum results on 25 October, saying the reports of a 95-99 percent "yes" vote from some governorates were "unrealistic." The statement criticized those Sunni Arab groups that called for a boycott of the referendum, saying that had more voters gone to the polls the constitution might have been defeated in the Ninawah Governorate. The statement said the Islamic Party supported a "yes" vote in the referendum on the draft constitution as an initiative to help prevent civil war and to "bridge gaps among the sons of the Iraqi people."

Salih al-Mutlaq, spokesman for the National Dialogue Council, told Al-Jazeera television on 25 October that the results are meaningless to his party. Al-Mutlaq accused "state agencies" of stealing ballot boxes in front of the IECI, and said that ballot boxes were taken from Mosul before all of the ballots were counted. "We believe that the results were rigged in Mosul, Diyala, and in most of the southern governorates," he said. He called for a new referendum to be held in the governorates of Al-Diwaniyah, Al-Muthanna, Ninawah, and Diyala.

Meanwhile, Sunni Arab leader Mahdi al-Hafiz told Al-Sharqiyah television that while he agrees with those who question the results of the referendum, Sunni Arabs should not focus on the outcome of the draft but rather on preparing for the December elections. "Undoubtedly, there are many shortcomings in the constitution. I was among those who had reservations on the draft constitution.... Nonetheless, I believe that Iraq has to complete the political process soon so as to achieve positive results in the upcoming elections."

Al-Hafiz reasoned that only political progress will reduce violence in Iraq since "the main parties will be taking part in the parliament and [will have] no serious reason for carrying out acts of violence or turning a blind eye to the parties or the organizations that carry out these acts." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

ARAB LEAGUE CHIEF CLAIMS SUCCESS AFTER IRAQ TRIP. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa wrapped up a five-day visit to Iraq on 24 October claiming to have won the support of Kurds and Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs for the convening of a national reconciliation conference in Cairo next month. It appears that Musa's trip received the blessings of the United Nations and the United States. But little can be expected from the Arab League, which has long been viewed as an ineffective body that works more to support the stability of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world than it does to effect genuine change on the ground.

For many Iraqis, the intervention by the Arab League comes two years too late. The league, always a bastion of support for Sunni Arabs, stayed away from Iraq following the fall of the Hussein regime -- not out of any love for Saddam Hussein, but rather out of shock over the U.S.-led occupation and a recognition that, like Iraq, any of the backward regimes of the region could be next on the U.S. democratization agenda. The league now appears to regard itself as the voice of Iraq's disenfranchised Sunni Arabs, whether all Sunni Arabs like it or not. No Arab head of state has visited Iraq since the fall of the Hussein regime.

Kurdish and Shi'ite Arab groups in Iraq generally hold the Arab League in disdain because the league has historically done little to support either group. Shi'ite Arabs are a minority in the Arab world, which is dominated by Sunni Arabs. Sunni Arab regimes have traditionally viewed Shi'ite Arabs as a fifth column -- closer to Iran than to the Arab world. The Syrian regime has been accused of not doing enough to stop the flow of Islamic insurgents into Iraq in support Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's movement, which has made the targeting of Shi'ite Arabs one of its main goals. Kurds are not Arabs and as such, hold little worth to the Arab states. Like Iraq under the Hussein regime, the Syrian government persecutes its Kurdish minority.

Tension between Iraq's Shi'ite and Kurdish leadership and the Arab League escalated in August when Amr Musa assailed the text of the Iraqi draft constitution for failing to recognize Iraq's "Arab identity." The accusation led Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari (a Shi'ite) to accuse the league of interfering in a purely Iraqi affair (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 August 2005). But in the end, the drafters acquiesced to the league's demand and amended the text of the draft constitution to say that Iraq's "Arab people are part of the Arab nation."

The Sunni Arab Position

Sunni leaders were divided in their support for Musa's proposed conference. Iraqi Nation Party Secretary-General Mithal al-Alusi objected to Musa's visit, telling "Al-Sabah al-Jadid" in an interview published on 19 October that the real intention of the Arab League was to kindle sectarian strife in Iraq. The league's member states, facing strife at home, "have found in Iraq a new way to retain their worn-out existence," al-Alusi claimed, adding: "So they are planning to cause the political process in Iraq to fail.... Amr Musa's aim is to accomplish this through a destructive scheme."

Iraqi Islamic Party Secretary-General Tariq al-Hashimi told Al-Jazeera television in a 20 October interview that his party supported the proposed conference, but he maintained that two issues would need to be addressed before the party signed on: setting a timetable for the withdrawal of multinational forces from Iraq, and the inclusion of members of the "national resistance" in the conference.

Like most members of the government, National Assembly speaker Hajim al-Hasani (a Sunni) hailed the proposed conference as a "positive step" toward reconciliation. Vice President Ghazi Ajil al-Yawir also welcomed the proposal for a conference, telling reporters on 20 October that Sunnis approved of the Arab League initiative.

Musa met with members of the Muslim Scholars Association on 21 October, telling reporters afterward that he expected the association would take part in the conference. Association spokesman Muhammad Bashir al-Faydi later said the association had laid down requirements for its participation in the conference. While he did not say what those requirements were, it appears the association pushed for the participation of the "national resistance" in the conference. "All of us are against terrorism and consider it a crime regardless of its forms," al-Faydi told Al-Jazeera on 21 October. "However, we must differentiate between the legitimate Iraqi resistance and terrorism."

Iraqi National Dialogue Council spokesman Salih al-Mutlaq also met with Musa, and soon after declared those talks "fruitful," MENA reported on 23 October.

Meanwhile, remnants of the defunct Ba'ath Party issued a statement denying Musa's claims to have met with Ba'ath Party representatives in Iraq, London's "Al-Quds al-Arabi" reported on 25 October. "When Musa deals with [the new Iraqi leadership] and deals with the occupation and its plans as a fait accompli, he places himself, his institution, and the Arab regional order in the ranks opposite the Ba'ath [Party] and the armed Iraqi resistance," the statement said. "The Ba'ath expected this, warned against it, and prepared for it."

The Kurdish And Shi'ite Position

While for the most part receptive to the proposed conference, Kurdish and Shi'ite leaders laid down conditions, saying they would not attend a conference with former Ba'athists and terrorist groups.

While Musa stopped short of acknowledging that demand in his comments to the media, he told reporters at a 22 October press briefing with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari: "We will invite all parties to participate except those who do not want to be part of the political process, which is their own decision."

And then, in a statement that appeared geared more toward Sunni Arabs than all Iraqis, he said: "The Arab world and the Arab League are your safety net. By talking about safety, I do not mean security in its narrow meaning, rather I mean the political, strategic, physiological, and intellectual safety."

Despite the underlying tension, Musa worked hard to convey goodwill toward Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders by noting on several occasions that the league acknowledged that the old Iraq is gone. Such acknowledgement went far with the once-oppressed Shi'ites and Kurds, but probably not far enough to placate the memory of the league's unbridled support for Iraq's Sunni Arab minority.

The Iraqi Hizballah Party attacked the Arab League initiative in an editorial published in the party's weekly, "Al-Bayyinah," on 19 October. The weekly claimed that "anti-constitution" forces (presumably Sunni Arabs), supported by Musa, reject political progress in Iraq. "Their rejection [of progress] is not based on national principles to maintain the unity of Iraq's territories and people, and its national security and social structure. It is based on their psychological backgrounds and culture of tyranny," it said, referring to the deposed Hussein regime. "Musa and the anti-constitution forces should realize a fact that fading things rarely appear. Saddam [Hussein] and his totalitarian regime and the single sect and village's rule have gone for good. Today, Iraq is for all Iraqis."

Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Shi'ite group Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), told reporters at a 20 October press briefing with Musa that while SCIRI was open to the conference, it would not engage in any discussions with terrorist groups. Al-Hakim said Musa "showed deep understanding that it is inconceivable to conduct a dialogue or seek reconciliation with such groups as they are the true enemies of the Iraqis," adding, "Of course, we openly blame the Arab League and Arab states for taking belated stands regarding Iraq and Iraqis."

Musa also met with Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on 22 October in Al-Najaf, who reportedly endorsed the proposed conference.

Meanwhile, Shi'ite parliamentarian Jalal al-Din al-Saghir told Tehran's Al-Alam television in a 23 October interview that Musa's trip to Iraq only served those Sunni Arab groups that hid behind the Arab League for the past 2 1/2 years and claimed the need for reconciliation. "The Iraqi political parties and organizations have always been in contact with each other, even before the overthrow of the [Hussein] regime. Those who speak about the need for the Arab League to intervene are the ones who have problems with the Iraqi street, the ones who failed in the Iraqi street," al-Saghir said.

On 22 October, the day that Musa traveled to Kurdistan, "Al-Ta'akhi," the newspaper of Kurdistan President Mas'ud Barzani's political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, outlined the Kurdish position on the Arab League. The daily said there is no other nation that loves its Arab brothers more than the Kurdish nation, despite the "inhumane treatment" of some Arab regimes toward the Kurds, and the behavior of other Arab regimes that turned a blind eye to atrocities being carried out against Kurds by their Arab neighbors. Nevertheless, the Kurds "still consider the Arab League an institution of paramount importance, in addition to it being the symbol of the Arab nation's unity," the daily said.

Saying that Kurds did not agree "with all the views of the Arab League towards the ethnic groups that are living in close proximity to the Arab nation," the daily cautioned that Kurds would never consider themselves part of the Arab nation. However, Kurds would recognize the connection between Iraq's Arab population and the Arab world, the daily noted.

Musa addressed the Kurdistan parliament on 22 October, saying the league "realizes that the old era is over and that Iraq is preparing for a new era." He added that Iraq needed to "overcome several that it will achieve an agreement of opinions among all members of society and so that [Iraq] will be built on clear bases, harmony, and a comprehensive national accord."

Saying a free, independent, federal Iraq would "represent a quantitative leap" in the region's politics, he told Kurdish parliamentarians, "I would like to say that Iraqi Kurdistan is an important part of not only Iraq, but also the Arab world and the Middle East region."

"Al-Ta'akhi" criticized the remark in a 25 October editorial, as did Irbil's "Jamawar," which asked why Kurdish parliamentarians did not take Musa to task for implying Kurds were part of the Arab world.

In the end, both Barzani and Talabani were diplomatic and praised the Arab League initiative. Barzani told reporters at a 22 October press briefing that Musa's mission was difficult, but not impossible, adding that Kurds would work to make the upcoming conference a success. (Kathleen Ridolfo)