Bickering Iraqis Strive to Build Voting Coalition
The New York Times
By Edward Wong

With three months to go until Iraq’s first democratic elections, established Shiite parties and powerful upstarts are feuding, prompting the leading Shiite cleric to try to pull them together to make sure that they clearly dominate the new government.

The cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is determined to work out a power balance before the election and to keep rivalries from weakening the Shiites’ position.

The two main religious Shiite parties in the interim Iraqi government have already banded together. But they face a formidable challenge to their prominence from an unlikely and possibly anti-American alliance that is looming between Ahmad Chalabi, the former exile and Pentagon favorite, and Moktada al-Sadr, the firebrand cleric who ignited two deadly uprisings against the Americans and the interim government.

After falling out with the Americans last spring, Mr. Chalabi has recast himself as a pious Shiite and is pursuing a coalition with Mr. Sadr, who has a zealous following. An anti-American platform would have widespread support.

Shiite Arabs, who are the majority, crave the power that has long been denied them, most recently during the era of Saddam Hussein. Making up at least 60 percent of the population, they could easily dominate the elections, marginalizing the Sunni Arabs, who have governed the region since the Ottoman Empire.

But internal rifts could allow other parties, including the secular party of the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, to win voters who otherwise support the religious Shiites.

The stakes are high, especially given the increasingly lethal Sunni-led insurgency, which on Saturday made bomb and mortar attacks that killed at least 30 people around Samarra, where the Allawi government and American forces had thought they held control.

For months, Ayatollah Sistani has been demanding that all the Shiite parties form a single coalition dominated by religious parties. The biggest stumbling block to a single slate is that election law dictates that the groups determine before the vote how to share power afterward.

If they are unable to agree, the main Shiite elements could split. Anxious to herd them together, Ayatollah Sistani has formed a commission to broker deals, once again selectively intervening in post-invasion politics.

“Maybe the dialogue will come up with a unified list,” said Adnan Ali, a deputy in the Dawa Islamic Party, a top Shiite religious party. “There’s an intention to see one list.”

It is becoming clear that the elections, to be held in late January, will be contested along established ethnic and religious lines, though the Americans are counting on a national assembly united enough to allow the government to address the country’s profound challenges.

Much of the success of the elections will also depend on whether the American and Iraqi forces can subdue the insurgency raging in Falluja, a Sunni city. Officials say they must break the insurgency there so people feel safe enough to vote, but must do so without inflaming Sunni anger. If Sunnis boycott the election, the guerrilla war could intensify or even turn into a full-fledged civil war with a Shiite ruling class.

Iraqis are to elect members of a 275-seat national assembly in late January, which will then install an executive government and write a constitution. Elections for a full-term government are planned for the end of 2005.

In the political jostling, the two main religious Shiite parties have agreed to form a coalition to run in the elections and are favorites for the support of Ayatollah Sistani, say officials of both groups, the Dawa Islamic Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, better known as Sciri. The two parties want the ayatollah’s commission to endorse the parties as the main body of a unified Shiite slate.

But so does Mr. Chalabi, who leads a rival faction called the Shiite Council, which consists of 42 smaller parties, including Mr. Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress. Mr. Chalabi is competing for the commission’s endorsement and a guarantee of a significant share of any assembly seats won by the Shiites, at the expense of the more established parties.

Seen as a carpetbagger by many Iraqis, Mr. Chalabi is trying to draw the popular Mr. Sadr into a coalition to strengthen his credibility. Senior officials in the groups of the two men have discussed how they would divide assembly seats if they were to run together. An organizer of the Shiite Council, Ali Faisal al-Lami, recently traveled to Mosul with Ali Smesim, Mr. Sadr’s top aide, to speak to Sunni tribal leaders about their possibly joining a predominantly Shiite coalition led by Mr. Sadr or Mr. Chalabi or both.

“It’s not about competition of parties and division of spoils,” Mr. Chalabi said of the Shiite talks. “There are no spoils to divide, only disaster to share at this time.”

Ayatollah Sistani favors an umbrella Shiite slate that includes not just the two major parties but also independent politicians, mostly from the south. The aim is to minimize friction among the Shiites and show the world that the religious Shiites are organized enough to govern.

While the Shiites bicker, the main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, both players in the interim government, have agreed to put forward a unified national slate. “The core group will be Kurdish elements,” said Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister and a senior official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. “The Shia house has a similar approach.”

The Sunni Arabs are divided about even taking part in the elections. Some groups like the Iraqi Islamic Party, which sat on the Iraqi Governing Council and is part of the interim government, say they will field candidates. Other powerful groups like the Muslim Scholars Association, a group of Sunni clerics that claims to represent 3,000 mosques, have said they will not take part and have threatened to call for a boycott if the Americans invade Falluja.

If politicians emphasize ethnic and religious differences during campaigning, or insist their groups are entitled to certain seats, tension could grow. At the least, the new assembly might be too weak to confront the country’s vast problems. At the worst, a Yugoslav-style dissolution into chaos could ensue.

A Western diplomat said American officials had noticed the divisions and had advised parties to form more diverse coalitions. Otherwise, the political splits “could create acrimony,” he said. “We don’t need more acrimony.”

But some scholars are more hopeful, saying it is natural for the parties to align along religious and ethnic lines. Once elected, the parties might paper over their differences. “Sectarianism is now the organizing principle of Iraqi politics,” said Yitzhak Nakash, a professor of Middle East studies at Brandeis University and author of “The Shi’is of Iraq” (Princeton University Press, 2003). “Political campaigning along sectarian lines is natural at this stage.”

For the American government, the best outcome is for parties that “democracy” to win seats in the assembly, an American diplomat said, and for the assembly to be inclusive enough so many groups feel they have a stake.

The Iraqi National Accord Party of Dr. Allawi, a Shiite, is expected to run in January but is at risk politically. It is a secular party with many Sunnis from the former ruling Baath Party, and so stands outside the main blocs of Iraqi politics. Support for the interim government has plummeted, and whatever political capital Dr. Allawi has left could be wiped out if he orders an invasion of Falluja. So the party might well need a strong partner to do well in the elections, but does not have one yet.

Another dark prospect for the Americans is the possibility that the loose alliance between Mr. Chalabi, whom the Americans accuse of giving intelligence secrets to Iran, and Mr. Sadr, the young cleric who commands a thousands-strong militia, could gel and emerge as the dominant Shiite coalition. “There’s an arrest warrant out for him right now, and I don’t think you’ll see us shaking his hand anytime soon,” a diplomat said of Mr. Sadr.

Mr. Sadr may be drawn more to Mr. Chalabi than to Dawa and Sciri because of longstanding feuds between Mr. Sadr’s prominent religious family and that of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a leader of Sciri. Both men are among the Iraq’s most popular politicians, according to a recent American-financed poll conducted by the International Republican Institute. “We have some reservations and problems about sharing a slate with them,” Mr. Smesim, Mr. Sadr’s chief aide, said of Dawa and Sciri.

As for the Shiite Council led by Mr. Chalabi, “we have a very good relationship with them,” Mr. Smesim said. “We don’t mind if they join our national slate.”

Parties are joining coalitions to present broad slates that will be able to attract the most votes. They will need about 30,000 votes to win one assembly seat. If all the Shiite parties contend the elections under a single umbrella dominated by the major religious parties, Shiite voters would overwhelmingly back that slate, allowing the religious Shiites to win a majority of the 275 seats.

If Shiite parties put up separate candidates, Shiite voters may split their votes, possibly denying the religious parties favored by Ayatollah Sistani a majority, said Prof. Juan Cole, an expert on Shiite Islam at the University of Michigan. “The more party lists,” he said, the more likelihood that some Shiite votes will be siphoned off.”

In fact, the Western diplomat said, the main Kurdish parties have already begun setting up small offices in the southern Shiite heartland to campaign for votes there.

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