Next Time, Sunnis Intend to Be Heard

Many regret boycotting the parliamentary election in Iraq. They say they won't repeat the mistake when it comes to a new constitution.

August 20, 2005|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Suhail Najim spent Iraq's last election day holed up at home, watching television and joining other Sunni Arabs who boycotted the polls to protest the presence of U.S. troops in his country.

Today the former tourism official is so eager to vote that he has visited three registration sites to ensure that his name is on the rolls for the planned October referendum on a new constitution.

"It's such a huss and fuss," said an exasperated Najim, 56, after being sent from one polling center in his predominantly Sunni Arab neighborhood in Baghdad to another one nearby. "But I'll go. I'll do it," he vowed, adding that leaders at his mosque had urged him to sign up. "This time I want to be sure to vote."

In stark contrast to the Jan. 30 parliamentary election, when Sunni Arab turnout was as low as 2% in some areas, Iraq's once-ruling ethnic minority is mobilizing for a much stronger showing this time around.

The January boycott, now widely viewed as a political blunder, left Sunnis underrepresented in the National Assembly and with a limited role on the committee charged with crafting a new constitution. Instead, both bodies have been dominated by Shiites and Kurds.

Determined to regain some of their clout, leading Sunni clerics who once called elections under occupation a farce and condemned voting as an act against Islam, are using the same mosque pulpits to urge followers to register.

Sheik Mohammed Salih, cleric at Baghdad's Bilal al Habashi Mosque and once a staunch critic of elections, Friday called upon "every honest and honorable Iraqi citizen to go to these centers and register" and then to "participate in the elections and referendum with enthusiasm."

The Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's leading Sunni political party, this time is pushing an aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign, blanketing its newspaper and broadcast outlets with information about registration, lobbying tribal leaders, and passing out registration pamphlets door to door.

Party officials are even pressing for permission to set up a registration booth in the Abu Ghraib prison, where they are betting that the votes of thousands of detainees -- mostly young Sunni men -- would go in their favor.

"We are making a great effort to push people to register," said Alaa Makki, a senior party official.

But the push is also drawing violent resistance.

In Mosul, eight carloads of gunmen kidnapped three Iraqi Islamic Party members Friday as they were putting up voter-registration posters. After driving to a public square, the gunmen cursed the party officials as "infidels" and "defectors of Islam" before shooting all three to death in front of horrified bystanders, witnesses said.

A day earlier in Ramadi, the governor of Al Anbar province and other Sunni leaders came under fire by unidentified attackers as they entered a mosque for a meeting about the upcoming election. Four were injured.

In Samarra, Sunni neighborhoods have received dueling fliers from groups claiming to represent insurgents -- some threatening to attack anyone registering to vote and others condemning the election but vowing not to harm civilians who participate.

The Muslim Scholars Assn., a group of conservative clerics, refuses to endorse a vote as long as U.S. troops are in Iraq.

"Our stand [on the legitimacy of elections] has not changed," said Sheik Husham Barony, spokesman for the group's Mosul chapter. "But this time we are leaving it up to the people to decide. We will not interfere with the decision to participate or not."

Iraqi Islamic Party officials said they had been attempting to negotiate with Sunni-based insurgent groups, urging them to halt election-related attacks and trying to convince them that a strong Sunni turnout was vital.

"We are trying to get them to stop the attacks, at least during the registration period, and show them that [voter registration] could even be helpful for the opposition," Makki said.

At stake is Iraq's first democratic constitution in about 50 years. Political leaders have been debating the elements of the document, which is supposed to be finalized Monday and submitted to Iraqi voters for approval on Oct. 15.

Although the draft is not yet complete, Sunni leaders say they will refuse to accept certain proposals, such as semiautonomy for the Shiite-dominated south or special recognition of Shiite religious leaders.

To defeat a draft constitution, Sunnis would have to persuade two-thirds of voters in at least three of Iraq's 18 provinces to mark their ballots "no." If the Sunnis stayed home, the document would be likely to pass, since it would probably have strong support among the majority Shiites and the Kurds.

Election officials say they are encouraged by the growing Sunni participation and are doing what they can to support it.

When Sunni leaders broached the subject of registering Abu Ghraib prisoners late last year, the idea was quickly rejected by the election commission. Now the officials are considering it.

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