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Iraq: Neighbors View Upcoming Elections From Radically Different Perspectives

Many fear that the elections will be disrupted by violence All of Iraq's neighbors -- Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey -- say they support national elections scheduled for 30 January. However, neighboring states all have different hopes and fears about the vote. Iran would like to have a Shi'a-ruled state as its western neighbor, while Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait fear a Shi'a clerical authority in Baghdad. Turkey, meanwhile, is more concerned about the issue of Kurdish autonomy.

Prague, 13 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey have pledged not to interfere in Iraq's 30 January polls. The ballot will elect members of a new National Assembly that will choose the next interim government.

Foreign ministers from the six countries, meeting in Amman on 6 January, released a 12-point statement, emphasizing their respect for the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity, and national unity of Iraq.

Ali Reza Nourizadeh is the director of the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London. He says such support comes from a clear understanding that Iraq cannot continue as it is now.
"I think what...people are most concerned with is Iraq exploding or imploding, rather than a Shi'a victory."

"Absolutely, because you know the mosaic of Iraq is such that only through an unbiased and clean election can this country be ruled," Nourizadeh says.

While they say they support the vote, Iraq's neighbors approach the elections from radically different political perspectives.

Feelings strongly differ on Shi'a having a bigger say in Iraq after the vote. Shi'a Arabs make up more than 60 percent of the population but have had little political influence in Iraq, which has historically been ruled by minority Sunnis.

Iran is the biggest Shi'a state in the world, and Tehran has expressed its support for the upcoming vote. President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said this week that Iran is opposed to any postponement or delay in the polls, a move which it believes would only worsen the security situation.

Nourizadeh says Tehran is not only concerned about security and stability. He says Iran would like to see conservative Shi'a religious figures accede to power in Baghdad.

Others, mostly Sunni-ruled Middle Eastern countries, look on such a possibility warily.

"If the Shi'a [in power] are pro-Iranian Shi'a, of course, they all are going to react and they all will be very, very concerned. But also let's not forget that [interim Prime Minister Iyad] Allawi is also a Shi'a, but nobody is scared of him, and actually they all welcome him -- starting from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries," Nourizadeh says.

Arab politicians openly voice concerns about possible Shi'a clerical rule in Iraq.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Hani Mulqi, on a visit to Egypt last month, said there is "real fear" that Iraq will be ruled by "politicized religion," implying an Islamic regime such as the one in Tehran.

Kuwait and Saudi Arabia also fear increased Iranian influence in the region.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit has urged that differences between Sunnis and Shi'a should be downplayed, stressing that they are all Arabs.

Many Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, have strong Shi'a communities and are concerned that a Shi'a victory in Baghdad could embolden their own oppressed communities.

Syria is a special case among Iraq's neighbors. It is a mostly Sunni country ruled by minority Shi'a Alawite politicians, adherents to secular Ba'ath Party ideology.

Nourizadeh notes Syria is clearly more concerned about the possibility of having a democratic, pro-Western government in Iraq than about the religious affiliations of its future leaders.

"The Syrians would like to have at least some of their friends in power. It seems that they are ready to cope with Mr. Allawi and [Ghazi Ajil] al-Yawir if they remain as the prime minister and the president in Iraq. But if there is a government hostile toward Syria with people like [Defense Minister Hazem] Shaalan, of course, the Syrians will be threatened," Nourizadeh says.

In recent weeks, Shaalan has accused both Syria and Iran of orchestrating terrorist attacks in Iraq.

The Kurdish Question

Meanwhile, Turkey has its own concerns about the outcome of the Iraqi elections. Ankara is concerned with developments in Iraqi Kurdistan, where on 30 January Kurds will also elect an interim Kurdish Parliament. Ankara fears the elections might strengthen Kurdish autonomy aspirations among its own Kurdish minority and also increase Kurdish influence in the Iraqi administration.

Last month, a delegation of Iraqi Kurds delivered a petition to the United Nations calling for a referendum on whether the Kurdish-run north should be independent or remain part of Iraq. Turkey strongly opposes an independent Kurdish state.

Yahia Said is a researcher specializing in Iraq and other transition nations at the London School of Economics. He says the main concern of all of Iraq's neighbors is the possibility that the country may descend into chaos.

"[There is a lot of talk about] Iranian influence and Shi'a domination and the 'Shi'a crescent' and all these things. So, it's nothing new. I think what these people are most concerned with is Iraq exploding or imploding, rather than a Shi'a victory," Said says.

Said says that for many regional politicians, the question remains open if the Iraqi elections will be feasible at all under the current security situation.

Allawi recently announced a 30-day extension of a state of emergency in Iraq a bid to give government forces more powers to safeguard the elections from insurgent attacks.