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Iraq Report: December 29, 2005

29 December 2005, Volume 8, Number 45

IRAQI PRESIDENT TAKES LEAD TO RESOLVE POLITICAL CRISIS. President Jalal Talabani has taken the lead in sponsoring dialogue between rival political groups to resolve a political crisis that erupted after some 60 political parties claimed fraud had taken place during Iraq's 15 December parliamentary elections.

Some political leaders have vowed to seek Arab League support in trying to force a new vote, and thousands of Iraqis have taken to the streets to protest perceived flaws in the election process. Their complaints have been countered by assertions by the Independent Electoral Committee of Iraq (IECI), the United Nations, and the European Union that the voting was free and fair.

Those seeking compromise are trying to avert potential Sunni boycotts of the political process, as well as threats of violence, and appear to be pinning their hopes on efforts to bring Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs and Kurds into a new unity government.

Presidential Prodding

Together with representatives of the Kurdistan Coalition, including Kurdistan Regional President Mas'ud Barzani, President Talabani has held separate meetings in recent days with representatives of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front and the secular Shi'ite Iraqi National List, both of which have contested the election results, and Iraq's largest Shi'ite list, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), which appears poised to control a majority of parliamentary seats.

Talabani and Barzani also met with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Al-Sulaymaniyah on 26 December to discuss the convening of a summit meeting in that northern Iraqi city for the leaders of electoral lists that won parliamentary seats in the voting, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Al-Sharqiyah quoted sources as saying that Khalilzad has asked the two Kurdish leaders to take the lead in containing the crisis.

Talabani had planned to bring representatives from the Iraqi Accordance Front, Iraqi National List, and the UIA together on 28 December, but that meeting was postponed at the last minute. Iraqi Communist Party head Tariq al-Hashimi told Al-Arabiyah television on 28 December that a number of representatives from the Iraqi Accordance Front are currently outside Iraq and were unable to return in time for the meeting. He said that a new date for those talks would be set once coordination issues were worked out.

Meanwhile, UN adviser to the IECI Craig Jenness told reporters on 28 December that the UN views the elections as fair. "The United Nations is of the view that these elections [in Iraq] were transparent and credible," Jenness said. "Turnout was high, the day was largely peaceful, all communities participated."

Sunnis, Secular Shi'ites Band Together

Some 32 election lists representing dozens of political parties who claimed electoral fraud banded together last week under the banner "Maram" [Mu'tamar Rafadi Al-Intikhabat Al-Muzawra, or the Conference for Rejecting the Forged Election] to contest the election results. Maram members intend to present their case to the Arab League in the hopes that that organization will pressure the Iraqi government into supporting new elections.

The leading Sunni Arab lists participating in Maram include the Iraqi Accordance Front, the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, the Reconciliation and Liberation Bloc, the Independent Democrats Grouping, and the Sun of Iraq list. The secular Shi'ite Iraqi National List and the National Congress Coalition are also taking part, as well as the Iraqi Turkoman Front.

Sunni Arab leader Khalaf al-Ulayyan, who heads the Iraqi National Dialogue Council, a party to the Iraqi Accordance Front, warned "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in a 23 December interview that violence will flare if Maram's demands go unmet. "Either we obtain our rights of participation in the [National] Assembly, as we deserve, or [we] withdraw. We will not allow the formation of a national assembly and will not remain spectators or oppositionists [if we are not allowed to participate], but rest assured that it will turn into civil war," al-Ulayyan vowed, according to "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on 24 December.

Al-Ulayyan also contended in statements to the press last week that the Iraqi Accordance Front would boycott the political process if no resolution was found. Meanwhile, Iraqi Accordance Front member Adnan al-Dulaymi told al-Jazeera television in a 25 December interview that there would be no boycott of the political process. The contradictory positions come as little surprise; Sunni Arab leaders have failed to present a cohesive front on many issues over the past two years. In this case, the disparity could end up costing them politically in negotiations with the UIA.

Reports from Baghdad this week indicate that some political parties are already defecting from Maram. The defections appear to be the result of infighting and a belief by some that Maram will be unable to achieve its demands. Moreover, it appears that the Kurdistan Coalition and the UIA have succeeded in exerting pressure on some political groups in the form of a guaranteed role in the next government.

Protesters Take To The Streets

Maram has sponsored large-scale demonstrations to protest the election outcome in Baghdad on a daily basis since 23 December. Some 10,000 demonstrators attended a protest in the capital on 24 December. Demonstrations have also been organized in the largely Sunni cities of Samarra, Al-Fallujah, Tikrit, Ba'qubah, and Mosul.

Shi'ite Arabs who support the UIA have responded with more modest demonstrations of their own. Hundreds of supporters of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demonstrated in Baghdad's Al-Sadr City neighborhood on 25 December, waving pictures of al-Sadr, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari. Al-Sadr, who has generally avoided direct political involvement, lent his support to the UIA in the December elections, and several of his supporters ran on the UIA's list.

London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 26 December that the UIA dropped a warrant for al-Sadr's arrest in return for the cleric's support in the elections. According to the daily, files connecting al-Sadr to the 2003 murder of Ayatollah Abd al-Majid al-Khu'i -- including an arrest warrant issued against al-Sadr in 2004 -- have disappeared from the judiciary. A judicial source quoted by "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" claimed the disappearance of the file was the price of al-Sadr's support for Prime Minister al-Ja'fari's UIA in the election.

Shi'ites Say No New Vote

Representatives from the UIA have rejected calls for a repeat of the balloting, saying that while there is evidence that some fraud might have taken place, the United Nations, European Union, and other observer groups deemed the elections free and fair.

UIA representative Jawad al-Maliki talked tough at a 24 December press briefing in Baghdad, telling reporters that attempts by rival groups to stir sectarian sedition by protesting the elections was a "grave mistake," adding that government forces would not hesitate to enforce Iraq's laws against sedition.

Asked if the UIA would make concessions in negotiations with rival groups, al-Maliki said: "We will not concede our matter what the pressure and blackmail might be." Still, he maintained that the UIA was open to dialogue.

The position of the UIA and its willingness to compromise may well prove decisive to the success of negotiations between rival political groups in the coming days. While the UIA is not expected to agree to a repeat of balloting, it might be willing to compromise on other issues, such as control over key ministries such as the Defense or Interior ministry. Such concessions, coupled with the awarding of the majority of the 45 compensatory parliamentary seats (they have yet to be divvied up), might be enough to satisfy Maram supporters.

While the UIA has shown little flexibility thus far, its position could change now that Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani has called on that group to support the formation of a unity government. (Kathleen Ridolfo)