17 December 2005, Volume 8, Number 43
FEWER COMPLAINTS OF FRAUD SURFACE AFTER LATEST IRAQ VOTE. With polling centers in Iraq now closed, election officials are starting to tally up the results of the 15 December parliamentary elections, a task that could take up to two weeks.
The task will be complicated by the issue of fraud. While election day violence was minimal, complaints of voting fraud and other irregularities circulated from early on election day. Still, so far, fewer complaints have surfaced than in January�s election to Iraq�s interim parliament.
While the spokesman of the Iraqi Independent Election Commission (IECI), Farid Ayar, acknowledged that violations had occurred, he downplayed their significance, saying some violations were to be expected.
Prior to the election, the head of the IECI, Adil al-Lami, said 140 complaints about allegedly illegal campaign activities had been filed. These will be investigated, he promised.
The complaints voiced by political parties and the IECI on election day were similar to complaints filed following the January elections: some polling centers did not open and voters complained of having to travel long distances to cast their ballots; a number of polling centers were short of ballots and ballot boxes; some voters found their names were missing from electoral lists and some were turned away at polling centers; and political parties and police were accused of intimidating voters to vote for specific parties in several towns.
Kurdish Leaders Concerned About Possible Violations
So far, the most serious election-day complaints have come from Kurdish leaders.
In the highly sensitive Kirkuk Governorate, which Kurds hope will ultimately be incorporated into the Kurdish autonomous region, hundreds of Kurds were reportedly turned away from polling centers after their names could not be found on voter lists.
Earlier this week, Kurdistan Regional Government President Mas'ud Barzani accused the IECI of plotting to steal some 200,000 votes in Kirkuk during the elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2005). Barzani said he would hold the IECI responsible for any problems facing Kurdish voters in Kirkuk on election day.
The IECI addressed the issue ahead of the 15 December vote, saying in an undated press release posted to its website (http://www.ieciraq.org) that it found "abnormal patterns" in voter registration in Kirkuk. The statement noted that its board of commissioners had rejected 81,297 voters� registration applications, for reasons that included: failure to produce sufficient evidence their identity; use of the same document by more than one person; failure to sign registration forms; and identical signatures found on multiple application forms.
A Kurdish minister in Iraq�s transitional government, Minister of Municipalities and Public Works Nisreen Barwari, complained that Kurds in Baghdad and other Arab cities were prevented from voting, Kurdistan Satellite TV reported on 15 December.
Barwari said that Kurdish peshmerga fighters assigned to protect her were turned away from polling centers in Baghdad. She also claimed to have witnessed "intimidation" against Iraqi Kurds, adding that Kurds have been marginalized in the voting process. These violations were carried out "with the knowledge" of the IECI, she asserted.
In the northern city of Mosul, hundreds of Kurdish voters who voted successfully in the constitutional referendum in October found that their names had been removed from voter rolls; some illiterate voters claimed that election workers assigned to help them vote ignored their preferences and cast ballots for other parties.
Shi'ite Alliance Accused of Intimidating Voters, Election Workers
In the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah, western news agencies reported that Iraqi police had used loud speakers to urge voters to vote for the ruling United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), and election officials complained that the Alliance attempted to intimidate polling workers. Secular Shi'ite political candidates said they feared there had been fraud.
Similar incidents were reported in two cities to the south of Baghdad -- Al-Najaf and Al-Hillah -- and in the northern town of Tal Afar. Hatim Bachari, a campaign manager for the secular Iraqi National List in the southern city of Al-Basrah, told the Los Angeles Times that electoral commission employees hung banners for the United Iraqi Alliance inside voting centers.
In Karbala, 70 kilometers south of Baghdad, Al-Sharqiyah television reported that the governor was using local security services and government resources to promote the UIA list.
Voters in Baghdad, Al-Ramadi, and Al-Fallujah complained that their names were absent from voter rolls. Some said they had voted without problem in the constitutional referendum in October.
In some areas, it appears that the IECI underestimated the number of voters that would go to the polls, with the result that a shortage of ballots or ballot boxes (or both) was reported in many towns dominated by the minority Sunni Arabs, including Samarra, Al-Ramadi, Al-Fallujah, and Ba'qubah.
IECI spokesman Farid Ayar said on 16 December that the commission would not view a shortage of ballots as an election violation.
The IECI has said it is looking into complaints that votes were forged at some polling centers. Should those complaints be verified, the IECI would cancel the results of the polling station, he said.
The IECI signaled before the election that it would conduct audits of the integrity, transparency, and credibility of votes across the country. "Audit activities include taking physical stock of electoral materials, checking on the actual number of polling locations, checking of materials for signs of tampering, reviewing [the] counting of forms against reported figures, visually inspecting the cast ballots, [and] looking for unusual patterns of voting," IECI head al-Lami said on 13 December. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally Published on 16 December)
EARLY VOTING GETS UNDER WAY IN IRAQ. For three groups of Iraqis -- prisoners, hospital patients, and military servicemen -- voting in Iraq�s parliamentary elections got under way on 12 December. For Iraqis living outside the country, polling stations in Iran, Jordan, Australia, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates opened on 13 December. Reports suggest that, so far, voting has proceeded smoothly. In all, Iraqi expatriates in 15 countries will be able to vote.
Iraqis living inside Iraq will cast their ballots on 15 December amid very tight security.
The Iraqi government, which has assumed responsibility for security during the election, decreed a five-day national holiday starting on 13 December, and has closed borders and airports, extended curfews, and banned internal travel between governorates. A no-drive curfew will also be in place on election day, and 13,000 concrete barriers have been erected at the main entry points into the capital, Baghdad. The government also announced that 16 security men will be assigned to each polling center, and -- as in January�s election of an interim assembly -- multinational forces will back up Iraqi security forces in areas around polling centers.
While it is difficult to predict the outcome of the elections, two things are clear: Iraqis have a tendency either to follow the advice of the religious clergy or to vote with the party line.
If these extensive security efforts work, election day might just prove to be the most peaceful of the campaign. The past month has been marked by violence, with numerous attacks launched and a number of assassinations of political candidates and campaign workers, some of which have been blamed on rival parties and some on the security forces themselves (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 9 December 2005). The latest victim was a Sunni candidate, Mizhar al-Dulaymi. He was gunned down on 13 December in Al-Ramadi, the capital of the volatile Al-Anbar Governorate.
Al-Dulaymi had headed an electoral list in the governorate, and was an outspoken supporter of the "honorable resistance," defined by him as groups that only target those members of the Iraqi security forces that support multinational forces in Iraq. Speaking on Al-Arabiyah television, he had argued that this policy distinguished these groups from terrorist groups affiliated with the international terrorist network Al-Qaeda.
The Role Of Clerics In The Elections
Contrary to the position they took in January parliamentary elections, Iraq's senior ayatollahs have shied away from lending their support to any particular list, calling instead on Iraqis to vote for candidates they feel are the most qualified to serve them. That advice has been interpreted variously, with some seeing it as giving voters the green light to vote for the candidate of their choice, while others contend it implies voters should choose the best candidates in the eyes of the clergy.
Whom the clergy themselves will vote for is not clear. Some Shi'ite clerics have openly encouraged their followers to support the United Iraqi Alliance, a religious force and the most powerful group in the outgoing parliament. However, other Shi'ite clergy, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani -- who backed the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance in January -- have reportedly grown frustrated with the transitional government's failure to produce real change on the ground this year: the insurgency remains strong, unemployment is widespread, living conditions are poor, and even basic services are lacking.
Al-Sistani's representative in Karbala, Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala'i, criticized the al-Ja'fari government in his Friday sermon on 10 December, saying it has failed to meet Iraqis� basic needs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005). Unless the situation changes, the governing parties could lose the support of the people, he warned.
In a statement released on 11 December, al-Sistani effectively called on voters to vote with their conscience (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005). Another of Iraq�s leading Shi�ite clerics, Ayatollah Muhammad Taqiy al-Mudarrisi, called on Iraqis to vote for the most loyal and credible candidates in a statement issued on 13 December.
The lists representing the minority Sunni Arabs comprise both secular and religious candidates, and most claim at least some support from local clerics in the governorates in which they are competing. Other Sunni clerics have stopped short of endorsing a particular party, but insist that their followers perform their "religious duty" by voting on election day.
An exception is the influential Muslim Scholars Association, which has called for a boycott of the election. However, in an 11 December interview, its leader, Harith al-Dari, told Al-Arabiyah television that the association had not "issued any fatwa [religious edict] banning participation in the election." Sunni Arabs are free to vote, he said, just as they are free to boycott the election,
In this instance, the association seems unlikely to influence many voters. All the indications are that Sunni Arabs will come to the polls in large numbers, and Sunni voter turnout is expected to be higher than it was in the 15 October referendum on the draft constitution.
Media Coverage Of Vote
While it is difficult to predict the outcome of the elections, two things are clear: Iraqis have a tendency either to follow the advice of the religious clergy or to vote with the party line. The outcome is most predictable when those two points converge, as they did in the January election, when Sunni Arabs heeded the advice of their clergy and stayed away from the polls, while the majority of Shi'ite Arabs voted for the al-Sistani-backed United Iraqi Alliance.
In this election, there is ambiguity about the positions of both the Shi'ite and Sunni clergy, and voting with the party line has become complicated for the Shi'a, as splits within the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance have led to the defection of a number of candidates, who subsequently formed smaller political parties.
This has created a cut-throat atmosphere on the campaign trail, an atmosphere that has been reflected on the pages of Iraqi dailies and in the tone adopted by many broadcasters. Many media outlets are tied to particular political parties, and their support for these parties� agendas has come through clearly in the news reports, commentaries, and advertisements carried in their broadcasts and on their pages. In recent days, campaign advertisements have assumed even greater prominence, particularly on television.
Independent newspapers have provided the broadest coverage and smaller parties have largely had to rely on them to gain some visibility during the campaign.
Though the coverage by most television channels has reflected specific loyalties, some channels have attempted to produce meaningful debates, staging roundtable discussions and interviews focusing on the main campaign issues. And, whatever the biases on show, there is undoubtedly no shortage of viewpoints to be found on the pages of Iraq's 200 newspapers, 70-plus radio stations, and some 45 television channels.
There are also some political efforts to reach out across Iraq�s major communities. Secular Shi'ite lists offer an alternative to Shi'a who do not necessarily support the establishment of an Islamic state in Iraq. Both the largest Shi'ite groupings -- Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National List and Ahmad Chalabi's National Congress Coalition -- boast Sunni Arab candidates, with platforms based on national unity.
Iraq�s Kurdish voters are expected to overwhelmingly support the Kurdistan Coalition List, headed by the region's two largest Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), despite criticism of the parties' performance in government and growing allegations of corruption and cronyism.
Indeed, there appears to be growing apathy among the Kurdish electorate, particularly among the younger generation of voters, who see few alternatives to the entrenched KDP and PUK.
In the October referendum, voter turnout in the Kurdish region appeared high, at over 95 percent. Even so, both parties have gone to great lengths to stress the importance of the vote to their constituents, saying it is the patriotic duty of every eligible Kurd to vote.
Certainly, the next government will have the power to decide on two issues of critical importance to most Kurds, an amendment of the draft constitution and the status of the hotly contested Kirkuk Governorate, which Kurds would like to see incorporated into their autonomous region. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally Published on 13 December)
AL-QAEDA PROMOTION OF RELIGIOUS DIVISIONS ANGERS LEBANESE SHI'A. Western military personnel, contractors, aid workers, and journalists, as well as Iraqi security forces, were the traditional targets of Iraqi insurgents and Al-Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. In mid-September, al-Zarqawi expanded the fight to the country's Shi'ite Muslim community, which makes up roughly 65 percent of the population. Al-Zarqawi's actions have had repercussions in another country with a sizable Shi'ite community, Lebanon. In exclusive interviews with RFE/RL, two leading Shi'ite clerics, Sheikh Afif Nabulsi and Sheikh Seyyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, condemned al-Zarqawi and the terrorist attacks in Iraq.
A Call To Arms
On 14 September, the website bayanat.info posted an audio link to a statement from al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda Organization in the Land of the Two Rivers (Tanzim al-Qa'ida fi Bilad al-Rafidayn). The statement employed inflammatory historical references and used derogatory terminology. Battles come and go and time passes, but the goal -- "A Crusader, rejectionist [derogatory term for Shi'a] war against the Sunnis" -- does not change. The statement continued, "The interests of the Crusaders coincided with the whims of their hateful rejectionist brothers, leading to these crimes and these massacres against the Sunnis."
The statement claimed that in the battle for the Iraqi city of Tal Afar, coalition forces protected Shi'ite neighborhoods so they could "launch a war of total extermination against the Sunni neighborhoods in an attempt to obliterate all forms of life in these neighborhoods." Then, the statement continued, poison gas was used against the city's Sunnis. The Badr Corps militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) was accused of torturing and killing Sunni men who escaped the shelling, and violating the honor and stealing the jewelry and ornaments of the Sunni women. "It is an organized sectarian war whose chapters were prepared with precision despite the existence of those whose sight God blinded and set a seal on their hearts."
"This is a special call to the Sunni tribes in Iraq in general.... rise up from your sleep, wake from your slumber.... The wheels of the war to annihilate the Sunni tribes have not and will not stop; they are coming your way, to your very doorsteps unless God permits otherwise. Unless you take the initiative and join the mujahedin to defend your religion and protect your honor, you will most certainly regret with sorrow...."
Al-Zarqawi's statement identified Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Mas'ud Barzani as "the Jews' servants" and accused them of seeking the benefits of a "polytheistic constitution." The Iraqi government was equated with that of Ibn-al-Alqami, a Shi'ite minister who allegedly betrayed the caliph in 1258 when Hulugu attacked Baghdad, and the Shi'ite prime minister, Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, was accused of declaring an "an all-out war against the Sunnis...under the pretexts of restoring the law and eliminating the terrorists." Al-Qaeda in Iraq, therefore, "has decided to declare an all-out war against the rejectionist Shi'a everywhere in Iraq, wherever they may be as a fitting recompense for them."
Five days after this statement was posted, another one from the same group appeared on a jihadist website (http://www.tajdeed.co.uk/forums). This one said that Shi'a associated with Muqtada al-Sadr, and any others who condemned the attacks against Sunnis in Tal Afar, are exempt from the earlier threat of retaliation. The war against Iraq's two main Shi'ite political parties -- Al Da'wah al-Islamiyah and SCIRI -- and the other mainstream political organizations will continue.
Threats In Sidon
The impact of Al-Qaeda's anti-Shi'a action is being felt in Lebanon today. Sheikh Afif Nabulsi, president of the Association of Jabal Amel Ulama, received a threatening message from the Al-Mujahedin in the Sham Countries on 5 December. Leaflets delivered to the Sayyida Fatima Al-Zahra mosque complex in Sidon criticized Nabulsi for "declaring hostility to the mujahedin" and referred to him as an "atheist."
Nabulsi has a record as a proponent of Shi'a-Sunni accord, and these are not the first threats against Shi'ite clerics in southern Lebanon. Nabulsi said in an interview with RFE/RL in Sidon on 8 December that he is unafraid. Furthermore, the local representative of the Palestinian "resistance" reassured Nabulsi in a telephone call that his organization does not back such a hostile initiative.
Nabulsi also rejected al-Zarqawi's declaration of war. "If he called for a war against the Shi'a, the Shi'a do not call for a war against the Sunnis. They call for peace with the Sunnis. We will not accept anything that will cause war. It is not the first time this man talks about such things," he said.
Nabulsi said that such calls for war against the Shi'a have historical precedents, and there probably will be similar occurrences in the future. The Shi'a, however, will stay "strong and reasonable" and will not respond in kind. Nabulsi advocated open-mindedness and discussion in order to achieve agreement. Efforts to create divisions between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims are artificial, Nabulsi said, and the Shi'a will not respond to violence.
Asked about Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Nabulsi said, "only fools follow him."
Later in the interview, however, Nabulsi made it clear that the Shi'a will not turn the other cheek. He said that the hostage takers in Iraq who behead their captives are living in the dark ages and are "warriors against God and the Prophet [Muhammad]." We should reply to such acts in kind, Nabulsi continued. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a head for a head."
Condemnation in Beirut
One would find it much harder to threaten a cleric in Haret Hraik, the mostly Shi'ite suburb of southern Beirut. There are surveillance cameras on most of the streets. Moreover, troublemakers might be discouraged by the omnipresent posters of Shi'ite religious men. These include Lebanese clerics -- such as Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and his predecessor, Abbas Musawi -- as well as Iranian ones -- Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Seyyed Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, considered by many to be Lebanon's leading Shi'ite cleric, denies having a formal political role. Politics and religion are never far apart in the Shi'ite faith, however, and furthermore, the faithful frequently seek Fadlallah's views on a wide range of issues.
As a Shi'ite leader, Fadlallah is very critical of al-Zarqawi's actions. He said, "We are against what those people believe in, because killing people because they are of different opinion is not Islamic in any way."
Fadlallah seemed particularly incensed by al-Zarqawi's promotion of Shi'a-Sunni divisions. "They feel that shedding the blood of Shi'ites around the world is lawful and the Shi'ites are not Muslims and they are unbelievers and the unbelievers should be killed. But not all Iraqi Sunnis agree with al-Zarqawi. That's why it is difficult to envisage a sectarian war in Iraq," he said.
It seems unlikely that the promotion of Sunni hostility to Shi'ite co-religionists will get much traction in Lebanon. In this country of some 3.8 million people, the Shi'a are a sizable group and play a significant political role. Moreover, two Shi'ite organizations -- Hizballah and Amal -- are viewed by many Lebanese as the "Islamic resistance" and credited by them with ending the Israeli occupation of the country's south. (By Bill Samii. Originally published on 15 December)