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Sunni Muslims get conflicting messages about voting in elections

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Iraq's Sunni Muslims, who make up about 35 percent of the country's population, are receiving mixed messages about whether to participate in national elections scheduled for January, with religious leaders calling for them to boycott the vote and political leaders urging them to participate.

Independent experts are watching the battle, saying the result may be crucial to whether the elections ultimately help promote political dialogue or aggravate political tensions.

Iraq's Shiite Muslims, who make up 65 percent of the population, are being encouraged to support the elections. Every Friday, prayer leaders in Shiite mosques explain why the elections are important to the worshippers' future. Some particularly aggressive imams have threatened their followers if they don't vote. Ahmed al Safi, imam at the Shrine of Hussein in Karbala, told worshippers recently that anyone who didn't participate in the process "will enter hell."

The scene is radically different at Sunni mosques. At the Hagi Najeeb Adeeb al Annee mosque in northeast Baghdad, for example, worshippers listened as the imam called for them to boycott American-run elections, accusing the multinational forces of "declaring war against Allah."

But outside, as worshippers left, members of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the largest Sunni political group, handed out fliers urging them to vote.

"Beware," the flier begins, before going on to describe how the Americans will try to make a new government build relations with Israel, allow the U.S. military to build permanent bases in Iraq and write a secular constitution. "All this will occur if you neglect participating in the election," the leaflet said.

Given the population differences between the rival Muslim groups, most experts expect Shiites to dominate a new national assembly. But many feel that the split within the Sunnis over whether to participate in the elections is likely to make the imbalance even more pronounced and threaten the stability of the post-election government.

"I think the people will question it as soon as the results come in," said Nabil Mohammed Salim, a political scientist at Baghdad University. The Sunnis "are going to say it's not a legal government."

Sunnis have long bristled at the U.S.-led occupation of their country. The most intense opposition to the American presence has been in Sunni-dominated cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi, and Sunnis have complained openly that they've been shut out of the government since Saddam Hussein, a fellow Sunni, was toppled.

The Muslim Scholars Association, a group of Sunni clerics who represent most of the Sunni mosques in Iraq, champions boycotting the election.

Mohammed Bashar al Faidi, a spokesman for the association, said there were no incentives for Sunnis to participate in the process. Their voices never will have any sway in a unicameral legislature certain to be dominated by Shiites. And, he said, the Iraqis want a government that would kick out the Americans. How, therefore, can the Americans, the enemy force, decide whether the process is fair? he asked.

"We do not have any preparations for the election because we are not sure it will be legitimate and credible, simply because it will be held under occupation and with trivial participation," Faidi said. "We know the elections will be for the benefit of the occupation. We have confirmed suspicions that elections will not be conducted with integrity."

Spokesmen for the Iraqi Islamic Party say they, too, have reservations about the fairness of the elections. They say continued U.S. airstrikes on Sunni cities such as Fallujah make the process unfair because Sunnis must concentrate on defending themselves, instead of educating themselves about the election.

But to date, the party is backing the elections.

"Our position is to have the election. We are speaking to people about the importance of this," said Ayad al Samaraee, the party's deputy chairman. Still, he thinks Sunni participation will be low because of the military conflicts.

That will aggravate a situation in which Sunnis are expected to win at best only 15 to 20 percent of the 275 seats in the national assembly, whose main goal will be to craft a constitution.

Iraqi and international proponents of the election are working hard to persuade Sunnis to participate.

The United Nations on Oct. 24 said it was willing to send negotiators to help prevent a Sunni boycott of the January elections. "We are ready to take this role if asked," said Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, the new U.N. envoy to Iraq.

The Independent Electoral Commission, which is organizing the vote with assistance from the United Nations, met with members of the Muslim Scholars Association last week to reassure the group that the process would be free and democratic, said Farid Ayar, a commission member and spokesman.

Although the scholars didn't change their position, "it was helpful for both sides," Ayar said. "We told them what we are doing and how we are going to lead the elections in a democratic way, and they said their point of view about the elections."

Judith Yaphe, a former CIA analyst who specializes in Iraq at the National Defense University in Washington, said she saw the Sunni debate as a positive contribution.

"I think it's all probing and testing and checking," Yaphe said. Having an anti-election campaign "is better than sulking. They are involved."


(Youssef reports for the Detroit Free Press.)


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.