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Iraq struggles with lopsided provincial governments

Sunnis boycotted 2005 elections, leaving them with little say today.

March 11, 2007|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The long delay in holding provincial elections in Iraq has shut out Sunni Arab majorities and exacerbated sectarian tensions in provincial capitals such as Kirkuk and Baqubah and in mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad.

A Sunni boycott of elections in 2005 has left the religious sect underrepresented in some provincial councils and has allowed Shiite politicians to dominate.

The stark political imbalance is a key driver of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in some of Iraq's most strategically important and heterogeneous cities, Iraqi politicians and U.S. officials say.

Plans to draft legislation to hold new local balloting have been put off indefinitely by the Shiite-dominated parliament, intensifying tensions with Sunni Arabs who have been pushing for new elections.

Sunni Arabs constitute at least 40% of Baghdad's population, but only one of the 51 members of the local provincial council is Sunni.

"The absence of Sunnis on the council has an absolutely negative effect," said Azhar Abdul Majeed Hussein, the sole Sunni council member in Baghdad. "When Sunnis turn to the council for even simple needs, they find they have no representatives. This makes them feel marginalized. There is a clear sectarian spirit in the council."

That sectarian spirit extends to the greater Iraqi society, Iraqi leaders and U.S. officials say, overlaying the combustible political strife.

Sunni Arabs are also underrepresented in Diyala province, northeast of the capital, where they are believed to make up 60% of the population but hold only about one-third of the provincial seats. In the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, capital of Al Tamim province, Sunni Arabs and Shiites constitute about 25% of the population but only 15% of the Kurdish-dominated provincial council.

Diyala Deputy Gov. Aouf Rahoumi said Shiite domination of the provincial council, which sits in Baqubah, had had a direct effect on security because Shiites had, as a partial result of this political strength, also come to dominate the army and police in the area.

"The governor is Shiite, the police commander is Shiite, the army commander is Shiite, the major crimes unit commander is Shiite, the intelligence commander is Shiite, most of the division commanders are Shiite," Rahoumi, a Sunni, said earlier this year. "So there are problems because they are a minority ruling over a majority."

Many Sunni Arabs boycotted the January 2005 elections to protest the American-led occupation and U.S. military actions in Fallouja, a city in Al Anbar province to the west, and other Sunni areas. The result was Shiite domination of local government even where the sect is not the dominant population group. National elections in December of that year alleviated some of the problems caused by the boycott, but new elections for provincial councils, which coordinate with national agencies to provide gasoline, health, education, sanitation, security and other local services, have been postponed.

A slow-going process

U.S. officials have described provincial elections as one of several benchmarks, along with reduction of violence in Baghdad and approval of a hydrocarbon resource sharing law, by which they are gauging the progress of Iraq's national government.

Many U.S. officials and Iraqi leaders say new provincial elections would give Sunni Arabs a greater stake in the success of Iraq and help rein in the insurgency.

But the Shiite-led national government has been slow to act. Shiite leaders say they want to hold new provincial elections, and say procedural requirements have prevented them from passing a law to schedule a date. Parliament has gone for weeks at a time without achieving a quorum.

Sunni Arab politicians and U.S. officials, however, say they suspect the Shiites are stalling, biding their time, even as Shiite militias and Sunni Arab insurgents use violent gerrymandering tactics to carve out sectarian constituencies that will preserve their power.

Sunni Arab insurgents in Baqubah appeared to gain the upper hand late last year despite an influx of Shiite militiamen and heavy-handed tactics by the Shiite-dominated security forces there.

Diyala Gov. Raed Rashid Jawad, a Shiite, said Sunni Arabs shouldn't be so disgruntled about their lack of representation because they elected to boycott the local balloting.

"They chose to boycott the elections, and now they are sorry about this," Jawad said. "Still, they have many people in the local government. My deputy is a Sunni. There are Sunni police commanders. The mayor of Baqubah is a Sunni."

Sunnis acknowledge that they are represented in Diyala's government, but they say the positions are token and not in proportion to their group's share of the province's population.

Complaints of corruption

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