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Iraq: Sunnis Voicing Increasing Concerns Over 30 January Vote Date

Arab Sunni leaders are becoming increasingly vocal in raising concerns over Iraq's planned 30 January elections. Many say they worry that the security situation in central and parts of northern Iraq will prevent large numbers of Sunni voters from going to the polls, assuring Sunni candidates do poorly in the race for seats in the new National Assembly. Some community leaders fear this month's vote will hand power to Iraq's Shi'a majority after decades of Sunni dominance of the country's affairs.

Prague, 5 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Sunni concerns are being raised at the highest levels of the Iraqi government.

Iraqi interim President Ghazi al-Yawir, a Sunni, said today that the United Nations should consider whether Baghdad should proceed with the nationwide poll, given the security problems in parts of the country.

He stopped short of saying whether he personally favors postponing the poll, as some Sunni politicians have demanded. Instead, he said it is an issue that only bodies independent of the government -- such as the United Nations or Iraq's Independent Election Commission -- can address.

"There will be some kind of conflict of interest if we [the Iraqi government] say, 'Let's postpone [the election] or let's go [forward].' But the United Nations and the independent electoral committee are probably the two parties who can have the final say," al-Yawir said.

The United Nations says decisions about the poll date are the responsibility of the Election Commission. The commission previously said that changing the 30 January date would require wide political discussion inside Iraq and with the United Nations.
Analysts say the mounting Arab Sunni concerns make it almost impossible to predict whether most members of the community will heed calls to boycott the polls or come out to vote despite them.

Iraq's temporary constitution -- endorsed by the United Nations -- calls for holding the vote before the end of January.

Al-Yawir, whose presidential powers are largely ceremonial, also criticized the government of interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi for making its own policies without adequate "coordination" with him and Iraq's two vice presidents.

Allawi, a secular politician of Shi'a background, has said the government is determined to go ahead with the election as scheduled. He repeated that position yesterday.

"The government is committed to running the elections on schedule, and this is a decision which has been agreed by both the Iraqis [Iraq's interim government] and the UN Security Council. As prime minister, I will continue working with other ministers in order for the elections to take place on time," Allawi said.

Allawi is backed by the United States, which sees the poll as essential to establishing a popularly supported government capable of ending the insurgency and beginning large-scale reconstruction.

The comments by the Iraqi president come as at least one of Allawi's cabinet members has also expressed concern over the date.

Defense Minister Hazim al-Sha'lan, a secular Shi'ite, said on 4 January he favors delaying the elections if Sunni Muslims have difficulty taking part.

Concern over the poll has noticeably risen within the Sunni community over the past weeks. The country's mainstream Sunni political party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, withdrew from the National Assembly race late last month, saying security is inadequate.

Hundreds of Sunni Muslim clerics, politicians, and other community leaders met in a central Baghdad mosque yesterday to call for postponing the vote. The meeting, hosted by the Muslim Clerics Association, concluded with a statement warning that "holding elections in such difficult and complex conditions will marginalize a large section of the Iraqi people, which could lead to divisions."

The Muslim Clerics Association called in November for all Iraqis to boycott the poll in protest over the U.S.-led military operation in Al-Fallujah. U.S. officials have often accused the Muslim Clerics Association of keeping close contacts with insurgents, but the group is widely considered to be influential within the Sunni community.

One of the speakers at the meeting yesterday was Adnan Muhammad Salman al-Dulaymi, the head of the Sunni Awqaf (religious endowments) Department. The department oversees the distribution of financial contributions from Sunni faithful to the needy.

Al-Dulaymi described the upcoming elections this way: "The holding of elections in the current atmosphere is not to the benefit of Iraq because of the following reasons -- a deteriorated security situation and the inability of a large number of Iraqis to take part in elections, bearing in mind that a number of voters have not received election forms in many areas in Iraq. And even in the capital, Baghdad, the forms have not arrived in many of its neighborhoods, in addition to the infiltration of foreigners in Iraq."

Al-Dulaymi's reference to the infiltration of foreigners into Iraq repeats an often heard accusation within the Sunni community that Tehran is sending some 1 million of its citizens into southern Iraq to vote for Shi'a candidates. Tehran denies all charges of interfering in Iraq's internal affairs.

Analysts say the mounting Arab Sunni concerns make it almost impossible to predict whether most members of the community will heed calls to boycott the polls or come out to vote despite them.

Allawi has asked Sunni tribal authorities and other leaders to encourage people to vote, but it is unknown how much success his efforts have had.

Mustafa Alani, an Iraq expert at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, believes there's a "good chance" that large numbers of Sunnis will not take part in the vote. "Basically, we have a [security] problem in Mosul," he said. "We have a problem in Anbar [Province], in Fallujah, Ramadi and other towns. We have a problem in Sunni-majority parts of Baghdad and in Diayala Province, as well. So I don't think, really, there is a good chance in terms of security that the Sunnis will take part in this process. And politically, they believe that this process is not going to be just."

Analysts say the weeks ahead are likely to see Sunni unease over the election grow further.

For now, it remains unclear whether their concerns can be satisfied by new security initiatives, by adding seats to the National Assembly to increase Sunni representation in the event of low turnout, or other measures that are reported to be under consideration.

The Independent Election Commission announced yesterday it would allow exceptions to normal polling procedures to reduce risks to voters in some areas. The commission said it will allow voters to simultaneously register and cast their ballots in western Anbar Province and northern Nineveh Province, which includes the restive city of Mosul.

By waiving the usual requirement for voters to register days in advance, the move seeks to limit their exposure to insurgent attacks. Insurgents fired mortar rounds at two voter-registration centers on 2 January in the central town of Tikrit.

Insurgent groups have stepped up the level of violence in Iraq in an effort to derail vote preparations.