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Iraq: Kurds Denounce Shi'a Election Demands

Kurdish politicians in Iraq say they strongly oppose the demand by the country's Shi'a Muslims for direct elections in selecting an interim local government to assume control from the U.S.-led coalition. They say Iraq is not ready to hold such elections, and criticize Shi'a clerics for taking the debate to the streets.

Prague, 22 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) appears to be considering whether to heed the demand of Iraqi Shi'as for direct elections, the country's Kurds are arguing that Iraq is not ready for such a step.

Mahmud Othman is an independent Kurdish politician and a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. He tells RFE/RL that Iraqi Kurds are united in the belief that direct elections would only lead to chaos. "We are, first, under occupation. Second, there is no security. Third, there is no census, or [voter] register. Four million Iraqis are outside [the country]. They have been ousted; they are not back. [And there are many] other reasons," Othman said.

Othman says many of those ousted are Kurds forced to leave Iraqi Kurdistan during deposed President Saddam Hussein's campaign of forced Arabization. The concern of many Kurds is that if direct elections were to be held now, Kurdish candidates would receive few votes and Kurdish concerns -- most notably their desire for regional autonomy -- would not be fairly addressed.

Othman says it would be better to hold direct elections after a year-and-a-half, when more Kurds may have returned to the country.

His comments come amid mounting demands from Iraq's Shi'a community for the CPA to abandon its current plan for the transfer in June of power to an interim Iraqi government. That plan calls for the selection of officials to be based on a complex system of caucuses in 18 regional provinces.

The country's most powerful Shi'a cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has rejected the CPA formula in favor of direct elections -- which could work to the political advantage of the majority Shi'as, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population.

Tens of thousands of Shi'as have flooded onto the streets in recent weeks for demonstrations backing Sistani's demands, and the CPA this week sought assistance from the United Nations in assessing whether such elections could be held. In an interview with RFE/RL late last year, Sheikh Ayatollah Muhammad al-Yaqubi, a Sistani associate, said there was no reason why Iraq's new provisional bodies should not be directly elected.

"Probably 80 percent of Iraq is stable, and we can go ahead with the elections with the agreement of the Ministry of Planning and the Ministry of Education, as we had it in the past," Yaqubi said.

But Othman says there is no way at this stage to guarantee that direct elections could be held in Iraq in a free and fair manner. He says the "majority" of Iraqis are opposed to the idea, and that Shi'a politicians should adhere to the timetable agreed by the CPA and the Iraqi Governing Council.

The CPA in recent days has shown a willingness to re-examine its plans for a political transfer and to consider aspects of Sistani's demands. The move comes after a week of massive protests throughout the country that may have shaken the resolve of coalition leaders. But Othman says demonstrations are easy to organize in Iraq, and that the CPA should not be so easily swayed from its ideals.
"We are, first, under occupation. Second, there is no security. Third, there is no census, or voter register."

"If we want to put people on the street we could put millions of Kurds on the streets in Suleimaniyah and Irbil and call for something. But this is not the way to solve problems, I think. Problems should be solved through dialogue between the people who are responsible for these communities," Othman said.

Some analysts say the issue goes deeper than the question of democratic progress and elections in Iraq. Neil Partrick, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, says minority Kurds and Sunni Muslims are concerned that direct elections would automatically favor the majority Shi'as and sideline their own roles in the future Iraqi state.

"From the perspective of the Kurds, and indeed from the perspective of the Sunni Arabs, moving quickly toward an elected provisional government appears to ensure that majoritarian democracy would sideline their interests. And from the Kurdish perspective, of course, they are seeking to maximize the territorial authorities that they would have -- or, short of that, at least to ensure that they have significant control over the oil wealth that could be generated from Kirkuk. So, that's the position we're in," Partrick said.

Partrick says moving quickly to elect an authority would doubtlessly benefit the Shi'as, who are seeking influence not only in southern Iraq, but Baghdad. But the analyst says he still believes a compromise is possible between the Shi'as, Sunnis, and Kurds.

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