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Iraq: Talk Of Reserved Legislative Seats For Sunnis Sparks Controversy

Iraq's 30 January elections for a new National Assembly are rapidly approaching, but uncertainty remains over how many Sunnis in central Iraq will come out to vote. Now, there are reports that some U.S. officials are proposing that the national legislature reserve a number of seats for the once dominant Sunni minority regardless of whether many members participate in the elections.

27 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- As Iraq's elections near, many observers have predicted insurgents will step up their efforts to disrupt the vote.

America's top military commander, General Richard Myers, said recently that those predictions are coming true after a recent series of what he called "horrific attacks."

"We said it was going to be much more of a challenge as we got closer and closer to that date," Myers said on 22 December. "The last several days that's exactly what we've seen. We've seen some horrific attacks not just against coalition forces but against Iraqi citizens."

Myers was speaking one day after a suicide bombing at a U.S. base in Mosul killed 22 people, most of them Americans. Recent days have also seen assassinations of security officials and at least one politician in attacks that have killed scores of people.

Today a car bomb exploded outside the Baghdad headquarters of a leading Shi'ite political party led by influential cleric Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim. The explosion outside the offices of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI) killed as many as nine people.
The continuing security problems make it uncertain how many Sunnis will come out to vote for a new National Assembly just a little over four weeks from today.

A U.S. lieutenant from the 1st Cavalry Division described the scene to reporters: "[At approximately] 10:15 this morning [local time], what appears to be a car bomb or a [vehicle-borne improvised explosive device] blew up underneath the double-decker bridge.... There are several vehicles that were destroyed, and several Iraqi citizens were killed and injured."

Most of the violence is in Sunni-majority central Iraq, where insurgents remain active despite U.S. troops taking their key stronghold of Al-Fallujah in November. The continuing security problems make it uncertain how many Sunnis will come out to vote for a new National Assembly just a little over four weeks from today.

"The New York Times" reported yesterday that American officials now are talking to Iraqi leaders about ways to assure Sunni representation in the National Assembly whether or not many members of the community participate in the election.

The paper quoted Western diplomats in Washington as saying privately that U.S. officials are proposing two possibilities.

One is to give some Sunni candidates seats in the assembly even if they get fewer votes than non-Sunni candidates in the nationwide elections.

Another is to guarantee a certain number of ministries or other top posts go to Sunni Arabs when the next interim Iraqi government is formed.

U.S. officials have not yet publicly commented on the newspaper report. But some Iraqi officials have reacted angrily to any such suggestions.

A spokesman for the Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission, Farid Ayar, said yesterday that candidates will win assembly seats only by winning the most votes. "Who wins, wins," Ayar said. "That is the way it is. That is the way it will be in the election."

Debate over whether to assure Sunni representation in the National Assembly looks likely to grow in the days ahead as some Sunni groups call for boycotts of the poll.

The Iraqi Islamic Party, a mainstream Sunni Muslim political movement, said today it will not take part in the vote.

Party chief Mohsan Abd al-Hamid told reporters in Baghdad that the decision was motivated by the government's refusal to postpone elections for six months to ensure broader participation.

Some Sunni leaders have said they fear holding direct elections now will hand power to Iraq's Shi'ite majority community.

The new National Assembly is to choose Iraq's next interim government and appoint the body that will write Iraq's first constitution since strong man President Saddam Hussein was ousted by U.S.-led forces in early 2003.

[For more RFE/RL news and analysis of events in Iraq, see our dedicated The New Iraq webpage.]