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Iraq: After Losing Referendum, Most Sunni Arabs Set Their Sights On Elections

Tariq al-Hashimi (L) announcing the formation of a Sunni bloc on 26 October (AFP) Some Sunni Arab leaders disputed the official results of the 15 October referendum on the draft constitution on 25 October after the Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission (IECI) announced that the referendum had passed in 16 of Iraq's 18 governorates. And though at least one Sunni leader has called for a new referendum to be carried out in some Sunni-populated governorates, most groups appear to have accepted the referendum results -- if not grudgingly -- and are now setting their sights on the December elections.

As it stands, Sunni Arab groups are divided between those willing to take part in the elections and those that boycott any participation as long as multinational forces remain in Iraq. That distinction aside, groups are further fractured by ideology and political goals that are weighted by nationalist or religious stands, which have thus far prevented them from forming any real challenge to the more dominant Shi'ite and Kurdish coalitions.

Sunnis Expected To Gain Seats

Sunni Arab parties are becoming more organized, though, and can be expected to raise their numbers in the National Assembly after the December elections. Since the next parliament will be responsible for making final changes to the draft constitution before it is ratified next year, Sunni Arabs must, out of necessity, work together to raise their numbers in parliament. The need to strengthen their representation in the parliament may help orchestrate a cohesive Sunni Arab platform.

But can they do it in time? Elections are slated for 15 December and, thus far, more than 197 parties and blocs have registered to take part in the election. Political parties have until 28 October to register.
"The main parties will be taking part in the parliament and [will have] no serious reason for carrying out acts of violence or turning a blind eye to the parties or the organizations that carry out these acts."

Three major Sunni Arab groups, the Iraqi Islamic Party, The Iraqi National Dialogue Council, and the Iraqi Peoples Conference, announced on 26 October that they will contest elections as a bloc to be called the Iraqi Accordance Front.

Other Sunni Arab groups such as the Muslim Scholars Association will refuse to take part in the election. The association portrays itself as an advocate for nationalist and more observant Sunnis, and it claims that the political process is illegitimate because it began under the auspices of the U.S.-led occupation. By taking this position, the association has put its future in the hands of the "national resistance" and, whether intended or not, its fate lies with the insurgents who target civilians in pushing for civil war.

This week, the association objected to conditions set down by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari on the participation of his party in the reconciliation conference proposed by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa. Al-Ja'fari said that he would support the conference only if terrorist groups and former high-ranking Ba'athists were not invited to the conference.

Association spokesman Muhammad Bashar al-Faydi told Al-Jazeera on 25 October that al-Ja'fari's stipulation was unacceptable. "All of use are against terrorism and consider it a crime regardless of its forms. However, we must differentiate between the legitimate Iraqi resistance and terrorism. Had this differentiation been clear, we would not have a problem with what Dr, al-Ja'fari said," al-Faydi contended.

The Muslim Scholars Association boycotted the referendum on the draft constitution because it claimed the text of the draft, which advocates federalism, would lead to the eventual breakup of the country if Shi'ite Arabs formed a regional government in central and southern Iraq.

Although the referendum succeeded, Sunni Arabs will still have an opportunity to influence the final version of the permanent constitution thanks to an agreement forged earlier this month between the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Shi'ite and Kurdish leaderships that gives the next National Assembly four months to amend the document, after which another nationwide referendum will be held on the permanent constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 October 2005).

Reaction To The Referendum

Sunni Arab groups -- including the Iraqi Islamic Party, which supported a "yes" vote in the referendum -- challenged the vote count in the Ninawah Governorate (Mosul) on 25 October after the IECI said that 55 percent of voters in the Ninawah Governorate opposed the draft; Sunni Arab groups claimed that the "no" vote was much higher.

The 55 percent "no" vote in Ninawah was not enough to overcome the two-thirds threshold (67 percent) needed for the constitution to be defeated by voters in the governorate. If the draft had been rejected in Ninawah, the constitution would have failed according to the terms of the Transitional Administrative Law, which stipulated that the draft would have to be rejected by the majority of voters in three or more governorates to fail. Voters in the Salah Al-Din and Al-Anbar governorates rejected the constitution.

Iraqi Islamic Party Secretary-General Tariq al-Hashimi told Al-Jazeera television in a 25 October interview that his party has objected to the results on the basis that party observers witnessed transgressions by electoral officials in voting centers. He said that while his party supported a "yes" vote in the referendum, it did not support a distortion of the results. "The Iraqi Islamic Party is very careful to have the voters' will respected, whether they voted for or against" the draft constitution, he said.

Asked about allegations of fraud at voting centers, al-Hashimi told Al-Jazeera: "Through [its] observers the party submitted 250 complaints, varying from the performance of IECI employees to issues related to logistical matters, security violations, and objections over the handling of the vote count." He added that his party is upset because the IECI has yet to submit a response to the party's complaints. "We will continue to [object] until the IECI adequately replies," he told Al-Jazeera.

Questioning The Wisdom Of The Boycott

Al-Hashimi's party also released a statement on the referendum results on 25 October, saying the reports of a 95-99 percent "yes" vote from some governorates were "unrealistic." The statement criticized those Sunni Arab groups that called for a boycott of the referendum, saying that had more voters gone to the polls the constitution might have been defeated in the Ninawah Governorate. The statement said the Islamic Party supported a "yes" vote in the referendum on the draft constitution as an initiative to help prevent civil war and to "bridge gaps among the sons of the Iraqi people."

Salih al-Mutlaq, spokesman for the National Dialogue Council, told Al-Jazeera television on 25 October that the results are meaningless to his party. Al-Mutlaq accused "state agencies" of stealing ballot boxes in front of the IECI, and said that ballot boxes were taken from Mosul before all of the ballots were counted. "We believe that the results were rigged in Mosul, Diyala, and in most of the southern governorates," he said. He called for a new referendum to be held in the governorates of Al-Diwaniyah, Al-Muthanna, Ninawah, and Diyala.

Meanwhile, Sunni Arab leader Mahdi al-Hafiz told Al-Sharqiyah television that while he agrees with those who question the results of the referendum, Sunni Arabs should not focus on the outcome of the draft but rather on preparing for the December elections. "Undoubtedly, there are many shortcomings in the constitution. I was among those who had reservations on the draft constitution.... Nonetheless, I believe that Iraq has to complete the political process soon so as to achieve positive results in the upcoming elections."

Al-Hafiz reasoned that only political progress will reduce violence in Iraq since "the main parties will be taking part in the parliament and [will have] no serious reason for carrying out acts of violence or turning a blind eye to the parties or the organizations that carry out these acts."

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