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American dreams of a secular democracy in Iraq suffered in elections

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Until almost the last minute, Muhammed Wattan had been willing to buck the trend.

The 33-year-old Baghdad resident and Shiite Muslim was determined to vote for Ahmad Chalabi's slate of secular candidates in the Dec. 15 parliamentary election. Wattan figured that Chalabi was just the man to establish order and prosperity in war-weary Iraq.

On election eve, however, Wattan decided that defending his religious sect was paramount and switched his vote to a religious Shiite ticket.

"I felt that we are at war," said Wattan, a college-educated clerk. "Chalabi is not the man for this war."

Interviews with other voters also showed that even those who say they like the idea of a stable, unified Iraq under secular leadership voted for religious or ethnic blocs.

That deepens doubts that Iraqis are willing to support the sort of democracy that American officials have envisioned as an ally in reshaping the Middle East.

Preliminary election results show that secular slates led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite and White House favorite, and Deputy Prime Minister Chalabi, a secular Shiite and former Pentagon favorite, did poorly. The United Iraqi Alliance, a slate backed by Iraq's most powerful Shiite clerics, did well.

Allawi, who led the government after the mid-2004 restoration of Iraqi sovereignty, won meager support in almost all 18 of the country's provinces. His Iraqi National Accord slate did poorly even in vote-rich Baghdad, where secular slates stood the best chance.

Chalabi fared even worse, receiving less than half of 1 percent of the vote in Baghdad. The poor showing there and elsewhere by his Iraqi National Congress slate could leave him without a seat in Iraq's Parliament and a chance to serve in the government.

Observers attributed Allawi's and Chalabi's poor performances to several factors.

For one, although the new constitution has provided Iraq with a political framework, the nation lacks the robust economy and middle class needed to nurture a secular democracy, Iraqi political analyst Amir Hassan Fayadh said.

"Secularism in Iraq is vulnerable," Fayadh said. "Democracy in Iraq is a structure that shines on the outside but is hollow inside."

Further, Allawi's Iraqi National Accord had been counting on discontent with the Shiite-led transitional government and a heavy turnout by Sunni Muslim voters leery of religious Shiite slates to help it win as many seats as it had taken in the last parliamentary elections, when it secured 40 of 275 seats.

But Sunni voters appear to have preferred slates that were purely Sunni and religious, rather than Allawi's mixture of secular Shiites and Sunnis.

Muhammed Abd al Wahab, a 30-year-old Baghdad barber, said he might have voted for Allawi "because his slate is mixed." But in the end, he cast his ballot for a Sunni religious slate, the Iraqi Accord Front.

In Sunni-dominated Salahuddin province, north of Baghdad, Allawi's slate received just 11 percent of the vote, placing third behind newly participating Sunni groups that together won about 53 percent of the vote. Overall, Allawi's slate appears likely to get 20 to 25 seats in the new Parliament.

Allawi's role as interim prime minister also hurt him. Neither Sunni nor Shiite voters looked favorably on his approval of U.S.-led offensives against Sunni insurgents in Fallujah and Shiite militia forces in Najaf.

His opposition to a law banning former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from the government also cost him votes; among them, that of Saad Khayoon, 41, a teacher and Shiite who said he favored a secular government. Still, he voted for the United Iraqi Alliance.

"We have had bad experiences with Arab nationalism figures and those who have Baathist tendencies," Khayoon said.

Chalabi wooed religious Shiites and was a leader of the drive to oust Saddam loyalists from the government. But that wasn't enough. Analysts said his 1992 fraud conviction in absentia by a Jordanian military court in a case involving the failure of a bank he founded and chaired was a drag on his campaign.

He also made ineffective political alliances, said Iraqi political analyst Abdul Sattar al Bidhani, who noted that Chalabi had joined with the Constitutional Monarchy party, which had insignificant support.

Allawi, too, had ineffective allies, al Bidhani said, describing them as "groups of losers who leaned on Allawi."

Despite their poor performance at the polls, Iraq's secular politicians may not be out of the running. When final election results are in, possibly as early as this week, Allawi still will have some seats in Parliament and a role in negotiations to form a new government. Chalabi could be represented if he gets one of the 40 seats in Parliament reserved for minor parties that didn't win seats outright.

In time, they might have another chance to persuade voters such as Baghdad's Wattan that they're worth supporting.

"The secular parties are more in formation process," said Haidar al Musawi, a Chalabi spokesman. "I think both secular and religious parties are going to have roles in Iraq's future."


(Mukhtar is a Knight Ridder special correspondent; Knight Ridder special correspondent Wail al-Hafith contributed to this report.)


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