Embattled Sunni Muslims in Iraq may sit out the vote
By Aparism Ghosh

Tucked away in the by-lanes of Baghdad’s upscale Yarmouk district, the Omar al-Mukhtar Mosque is an unimpressive structure. Gray cement and concrete, it boasts no glittering dome, no grand courtyard, no elaborate stucco work on the ceiling. The loudspeakers on its single minaret are set at a modest volume, and the muezzin’s call to prayer barely travels a few blocks. “We like to keep things low-key,” says Abdul Karim al-Nasseri, the mosque’s soft-voiced imam. “People come here for quiet contemplation.”

But the peaceful exterior hides a deepening disquiet. The Omar al-Mukhtar is a Sunni mosque, and these days, many of al-Nasseri’s flock stop by his office after their daily prayers to unburden their anxieties — about the lack of jobs, the growing violence and, mostly, Iraq’s political future. “Most of the conversations are about the elections,” he says. “People want to know what they should do. Should they vote? Will it make any difference if they do? And who should they vote for?”

For the first time in centuries, Iraq’s Sunnis are unsure of their place in the political arena. Traditionally the country’s ruling elite despite being outnumbered by Shi’ites almost 3 to 1, they face being left behind as Iraq hurtles toward general elections scheduled for January. With many Sunni areas in central and western Iraq plagued by insurgency, U.S. and Iraqi officials have expressed doubts that a credible vote can be held in Sunni areas unless U.S. forces take back the rebel-held cities. Even if U.S. troops do, the task of finding Sunnis willing to brave intimidation from militant groups may prove even more difficult. In the absence of strong moderate voices, the insurgents have been able to consolidate power by portraying themselves as defenders of Sunni interests and threatening or killing those viewed as cooperating with the U.S. “For the past year, the only Sunnis who were seen or heard were the resistance,” says Wamid Nadhmi, a Sunni political scientist at Baghdad University. “The result was that we — all of us — were labeled, especially by the Americans, as insurgents, kidnappers, beheaders, suicide bombers. The elections will allow us to choose legitimate groups who can stand up and represent the real aspirations of the Sunnis.”

Most Sunnis would jump at the chance to choose. A new Iraq-wide opinion poll by the International Republican Institute found that nearly two-thirds of Sunnis intend to vote. But the elections present Sunnis with new dilemmas — and could create new nightmares for U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies. Sunni extremists are calling for a boycott of the elections and threatening reprisals against those who vote. And in the absence of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime, there are few credible Sunni political parties to choose from. Community leaders are worried that the absence of a strong Sunni party would leave them without adequate clout in the next government and, crucially, in the drafting of the new Iraqi constitution. But the biggest danger may be that a low Sunni turnout would undermine the legitimacy of any new government and dash prospects of a quick postelection pacification of the resistance. “If the Sunnis don’t feel they have a stake in the national government,” warns a Western diplomat, “they will be a constant source of friction within the political system.” Failure to secure Sunni participation in the new government could drive more Sunnis into the arms of the insurgents, delaying a peaceful pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq. “If the Sunnis are not a big part of the next government,” says Sadoun al-Dulame, executive director of the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, “violence will escalate quickly.”

It’s telling that the only Sunni organization with anything close to a national reach is still unsure how to approach the elections. The Association of Muslim Scholars (A.M.S.), which comprises the imams of 3,000 Sunni mosques, has spent much of the past year loudly decrying the political process on the grounds that any vote would be tainted if it were conducted during the U.S.-led occupation. The A.M.S. seemed to soften its stance last month when Abdul Salam al-Qubaisi, a high-ranking cleric, told TIME the group would confer its blessings on some candidates. “We will not be candidates, but we will support the election,” he said. “We will support people with the right qualifications”–meaning those not associated with the U.S.-backed interim government. Al-Qubaisi was even cautiously optimistic that the A.M.S. would be able to persuade some elements of the resistance to abandon their boycott and join the political process.

But a week later, the A.M.S. returned to its previous intransigence, threatening to “declare holy war over Iraq and declare a mobilization against the occupation troops as well as all those collaborating with them” if U.S. forces didn’t stop their bombing operations in Fallujah. And amid growing reports of an imminent ground assault on Fallujah by U.S.-led forces, the A.M.S. last week warned that such an operation would lead it to “call on Iraqis to boycott the polls and to consider the results null and void.”

The only sizable group within the political process that is associated with the Sunnis, the Iraqi Islamic Party, is poorly organized and scorned by the clerics for having contributed two ministers to interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s government. The other prominent Sunnis likely to contest the elections represent secular parties of uncertain popularity. Adnan Pachachi’s Iraqi Independent Democrats, Nasser Chaderchi’s National Democratic Party and Wamid Nadhmi’s Arab Nationalist Movement are all maneuvering to form electoral alliances with Shi’ite and Kurdish parties rather than appeal to Sunni voters. The highest-ranking Sunni in the U.S.-backed interim government, President Ghazi al-Yawer, hasn’t even formed a party of his own. He too is expected to join a broad-based coalition.

The trouble is that secular political alliances probably won’t bring out the vote in much of the Sunni triangle, where sectarian sensibilities run deep, and many Sunnis say they fear being marginalized by Shi’ite religious parties that are set to dominate the new government. Even in cosmopolitan Baghdad, many Sunnis feel they need a party that represents them exclusively. Ali Hameed, a neuropsychiatrist and worshipper at the Omar alMukhtar, describes himself as secular-minded but laments the lack of a strong Sunni party. “I would not be troubled if a Shi’ite party came to power in the elections,” he says. “But there should also be a strong Sunni party to protect our interests. There isn’t one, so what should we do?”

At the Omar al-Mukhtar, worshippers who ask that question of al-Nasseri get a carefully weighed answer. A senior cleric in the A.M.S., he shares not only the Sunni clergy’s intense dislike of the U.S. but also its distrust of a political process sponsored by “the occupying power.” But unlike many of his fellow clerics, he believes Sunnis should hold their noses and dive in. He is advising his flock to vote. “The important thing is for us to have a say in the future of Iraq,” he says. “If we stay out of the elections, then we lose our voice. We can’t afford that.”

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