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Once-dominant Sunnis rejecting Iraqi elections as Jan. 30 nears

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Less than a month before Iraq's election, Sunnis nationwide are deciding to sit it out.

Political leaders of Iraq's once-dominant sect say that it's because insurgents are intimidating Sunnis when they try to register to vote and threatening voter registration officials in Sunni strongholds. Opponents say the Sunnis—a 30 percent minority of Iraqis—are withdrawing to save face in the Jan. 30 election, which they appear sure to lose to majority Shiite parties.

Whatever the reason, there are neither voter registration centers nor any registered voters in the Sunni strongholds of Fallujah and Ramadi, according to the Independent Electoral Commission, which is in charge of the Jan. 30 election. In several other major Sunni cities—Samarra, parts of Diyala, and nearly all of Mosul—no voters have registered either, said Ayad A. al Ezy, a spokesman of the main Sunni political party, the Islamic Party.

Acknowledging that registration efforts are troubled, the government now says that Iraqis will be allowed to vote on Jan. 30, even if they haven't registered. All they need do is present their U.N.-issued food ration cards, the best indicator of who lives where. That won't prevent multiple voting, however, and sketchy voter rolls, coupled with low turnout driven by threats of violence would deprive the election of much of the legitimacy Iraq's next leaders will need.

Last week, the Islamic Party and its candidates formally withdrew from the election, saying it had become too violent for their participation. On Friday, all 700 election workers in Mosul, the nation's third largest city, reportedly quit because insurgents had threatened their lives if they kept working. The government denies it took place.

Many Sunnis back the party's call for a six-month delay in the election until security is enhanced. Otherwise, said al Ezy, "We are saying the election is illegitimate."

The Bush administration has refused to move the election date, arguing that a delay would be a win for terrorism and that most Iraqis are eager to vote.

Sunnis also complain that the recent U.S.-led crackdown in Fallujah, which was supposed to clear the city of insurgents in time for elections, actually made it more difficult for Sunnis. They say the fighting moved the insurgency into another Sunni stronghold, Mosul, making it too dangerous for voters there as well. In one recent incident there, voter registration cards were burned.

Certainly Fallujah, where only a fraction of the 300,000 residents have returned home, is in no shape to hold an election.

Wafat Hussein, a Fallujah refugee now living with her dying mother and five children in a tent outside the Mustafa Mosque in Baghdad, scoffs at the suggestion that she might participate in the election.

"I won't vote until I can go home," Hussein said Friday, her neighbors nodding in agreement. "I don't care about elections now. I want a solution for our problems."

Sheikh Hussein Zubayi, a Sunni who runs the camp at Mustafa Mosque, draws his own conclusion from Washington's insistence on the Jan. 30 date, coupled with the evacuation of Fallujah's residents: "The Americans are trying to isolate us from the rest of the Iraqis."

Though a minority, Sunnis dominated Iraq's government during the reign of Saddam Hussein, who also is Sunni. Since the regime's collapse, the majority Shiites have more effectively prepared for the election. Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al-Sistani, their most influential voice, and other imams, tell followers that voting is a religious duty.

It's working. Shiite communities are plastered with campaign posters. More than 60 percent of residents have picked up their voter registration cards compared to 20 percent in predominantly Sunni areas, according to a poll conducted this month by the Iraqi Center for Research and Strategic Studies, a national polling center. It's not clear whether the 20 percent are non-Sunnis or some Sunnis have registered to vote.

Intimidation of registrants and registars in Sunni communities is one explanation for the low figures, said al Ezy.

Dr. Huda al Nuaimi, a political science professor who lives in a Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad, said she was among the intimidated. She tried to pick up her voter registration card, she said, but the man who had them was threatened if he handed them out, so she could not pick it up.

Al Nuaimi, a secularist, supports the Islamic Party's call for a delay in balloting.

"If we postponed the elections, it doesn't mean we are going to give up to terrorists as much as it could mean allowing the Iraqis to vote in a safe environment," she said.

Hussain Hindawi, the head of the election commission, responded that the Islamic Party's decision to withdraw cannot sideline the entire process.

"It's their right to do that," Hindawi said. "But the election will happen on Jan. 30."


(Youssef reports for the Detroit Free Press.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.