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More Players, Higher Stakes in Next Iraqi Election

The Dec. 15 legislative vote promises to be fiercely competitive. Allawi hopes for a comeback, and Sunnis may wield influence.

October 28, 2005|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

FALLOUJA, Iraq — This might be the last place one would expect to find support for Iyad Allawi, Iraq's former interim prime minister and a current parliamentary candidate.

It was Allawi, after all, who authorized the massive, U.S.-led assault on this Sunni Arab-dominated city last year that destroyed half its buildings, displaced 150,000 people and resulted in the deaths of at least 1,200 alleged insurgents.

But Ahmed Hussein, a Falloujan businessman whose family was among the displaced, didn't take the siege personally because Allawi, who is a secular Shiite Muslim, also approved an assault on the predominantly Shiite holy city of Najaf to put down a rebellion there.

"After seeing the current government, I think Iyad Allawi is much better," Hussein said. "He never distinguished between Sunnis and Shiites. He just cared about security."

With today's registration deadline for parties seeking to participate in the Dec. 15 legislative election, Allawi's appeal in such places as Fallouja and Najaf is a sign that the upcoming vote promises to be much more fiercely fought and competitive than January's landmark poll.

As of Thursday -- when military officials announced the deaths of three U.S. troops, bringing the count to 2,004 since the 2003 invasion -- more than 330 Iraqi political entities had registered for the upcoming ballot, three times the number in January.

The stakes are also much higher this time around. In January, voters determined the makeup of a one-year interim government, but December's winners will serve four-year terms. In addition, the next parliament will revise the recently approved constitution, a controversial document that has reinforced Iraq's sectarian and ethnic split.

And compared with the last parliamentary election, most Sunnis are fully engaged rather than planning to boycott, which boosts the poll's credibility. Although Sunnis, who have fueled the ongoing insurgency, represent a minority in Iraq, they stand a better chance of wielding influence this time because the seats will be divided among Iraq's 18 provinces rather than by the political parties that get the most votes nationally.

Back-room negotiations that have been going on for at least a month reached a fever pitch this week, as parties within Iraq's largest ethnic and religious blocs -- Sunni and Shiite Arabs, Kurds and secularists -- worked furiously to put their differences aside and create broad alliances.

Leading Shiite groups Thursday announced what may be the most formidable bloc. The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Dawa Party, candidates allied with nationalist cleric Muqtada Sadr and several smaller parties will contend as the United Iraqi Alliance. Shiites are the majority of the population, and the alliance won 48% in January, but disagreements have put its future in doubt.

Several Sunni groups have also joined together, although disagreement about the recent national vote ratifying the constitution created a split. The Iraqi Islamic Party, which counts National Assembly Speaker Hachim Hassani among its leaders, backed the document against the wishes of some coalition partners after Kurdish and Shiite groups promised revisions after the December election.

This caused Sunni hard-liners such as Saleh Mutlak, a constitutional committee member who opposed the final draft, to pull out of the Iraqi National Dialogue Council. "They wanted to go in a more secular way, and I didn't," Mutlak said. "So there will be a split."

A Western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said continued political involvement by Sunnis, who were the elite in Iraq during the Saddam Hussein era despite their minority status, could eventually cause "a gradual erosion of support for the insurgency."

"For example, there is terrific concern about Shiite death squads going through people's neighborhoods and picking people up and killing them or imprisoning them without due process," the official said. "If they have a sense that by getting into government, they can stop that kind of thing, that will give them confidence that the political process is valuable to them."

Meanwhile, the large Kurdish bloc appears united behind the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan, as it was in January. It won 26% of the vote and several ministerial posts, including president.

Even as political organizations come together along sectarian and ethnic lines, some are also attempting to appeal to broader constituencies.

"The majority of Iraqis respects its Islamic heritage and values in a moderate way," said Ali Dabagh, a moderate National Assembly member with the Shiite alliance. "Promoting sectarianism will encourage extremism, which will create instability. I am against having a theocratic state in the way in which Iran or Al Qaeda is promoting."

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