Myth and reality in Iraq

Posted in Iraq | 31-Dec-05 | Source: International Herald Tribune

Iraqis protest calling for new national elections in western Baghdad.
When Craig Jeness, an official of the United Nations' election-monitoring mission in Iraq, confirmed Wednesday that the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections there were "transparent and credible," he was not only affirming the validity of the vote and the honesty of Iraq's own electoral commission. In a way, Jeness, a Canadian, was also doing a favor for the Sunni Arab political leaders who have been alleging large-scale electoral fraud.

Those leaders had been telling their followers that if they got out the Sunni Arab vote, they would win a share of representation commensurate with that of the major Shiite parties. This forecast was based on a myth that many Sunni Arabs tell themselves: that they are in the majority, as befits their previous role as the dominant group in Iraq's political and economic life.

Since there has been no real census in Iraq since 1957, no reliable figures are available for the current population. Most informed estimates, however, place the Sunni Arab share at 20 percent or less. Some estimates go as low as 13 percent.

Whatever the actual percentage may be, it is almost certain to fall far short of a majority. But it has become a matter of sectarian pride for Sunni Arabs to deny the likelihood that there may be three times as many Shiites in Iraq as Sunni Arabs.

The upshot of this persistent denial of reality is that the grass-roots supporters of the Sunni Arab parties find it hard to accept that, though they turned out in force for the recent elections, preliminary results indicate their parties are likely to gain between 40 and 50 seats in the new 275-seat national assembly. This is about the same portion that the Kurds, who make up roughly 20 percent of the population and who voted in large numbers, expect to receive.

So leaders of the Sunni Arab parties face a dilemma. Not wanting to be the ones to disabuse their community of its majoritarian myth, they find it easier to blame the disappointing result on claims of widespread election cheating. This indulgence of a pervasive habit of self-delusion may be the wrong thing to do psychologically, but it is politically shrewd. The Sunni Arab leaders pretend to disregard the fact that UN election specialists and Iraq's 12,000-strong election commission found that only 35 of 1,500 complaints about voting fraud were serious and that none of those would have affected the election results.

It should, however, be easier for Sunni Arab leaders to accept those results and bargain with their Shiite and Kurdish counterparts for cabinet posts now that a voice speaking for the United Nations has exposed Iraq's Sunni Arab minority to the reality upon which any peaceable democratic order must be constructed.

- The Boston Globe