U.S. Is Suggesting Guaranteed Role for Iraq's Sunnis

Posted in United States | 27-Dec-04 | Author: Steven Weisman| Source: The New York Times

Families returning to Falluja have cars searched by United States marines. Assuring voter turnout in such Sunni towns worries election planners.

WASHINGTON, Dec. 25 - The Bush administration is talking to Iraqi leaders about guaranteeing Sunni Arabs a certain number of ministries or high-level jobs in the future Iraqi government if, as is widely predicted, Sunni candidates fail to do well in Iraq's elections.

An even more radical step, one that a Western diplomat said was raised already with an aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, is the possibility of adding some of the top vote-getters among the Sunni candidates to the 275-member legislature, even if they lose to non-Sunni candidates.

The diplomat said even some Shiite politicians who were followers of Ayatollah Sistani were concerned that a Pyrrhic victory by Shiites, effectively shutting Sunni Arabs out of power, could alienate Sunnis and lead to more internal strife. Shiites make up about 60 percent of Iraqis and were generally denied power under Saddam Hussein.

Strife was still the word in Baghdad, where the death toll from the explosion of a tanker truck on Christmas Eve rose to nine on Saturday, with 19 wounded, the Interior Ministry said. No group has taken responsibility for the attack, which apparently did not damage any obvious insurgent targets. [Page 20.]

The idea of adding Sunnis to the legislature after the election was acknowledged by officials as likely to be difficult to carry out, but they said it might be necessary to avoid Sunni estrangement.

Sunnis Arabs make up about 20 percent of the population and formed the core of Mr. Hussein's power structure.

Much of the violent insurgency is taking place in Sunni-dominated areas in the central part of the country, and some Sunni leaders have called for a boycott of the election. This has led to fears that large numbers of Sunnis will obey the call or be afraid to vote.

"There's some flexibility in approaching this problem," said an administration official. "There's a willingness to play with the end result - not changing the numbers, but maybe guaranteeing that a certain number of seats go to Sunni areas even if their candidates did not receive a certain percentage of the vote."

The idea of altering election results is so sensitive that administration officials who spoke about it did not want their names revealed. Some experts on Iraq say such talk could undercut efforts to drum up support for voting in Sunni areas.

Guaranteeing a certain number of positions in government for certain ethnic groups is not without precedent, though. Lebanon, for example, has a power-sharing arrangement among its main sectarian groups. The Parliament in Iran has seats reserved for religious minorities.

It was not known whether Ayad Allawi, the Iraqi prime minister, had been consulted about the possibility of taking such action.

Any suggestion of delaying the elections because Sunnis are reluctant to vote has been knocked down by President Bush and other administration officials. An administration official said, for example, that when King Abdullah II of Jordan visited Mr. Bush earlier this month, the president began the meeting by telling the king to not even raise the issue of postponing the elections because it was beyond consideration. Instead, Mr. Bush has pressed King Abdullah and the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries to spread the word to Sunnis in Iraq to support their candidates and to vote.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and other top officials have said in the past week that they were generally pleased with indications that an overwhelming majority of Iraqis wanted to vote and that many well-known Sunni leaders were running for office, despite the calls for a boycott by other prominent Sunnis.

But there are also American-made factors hobbling full participation in the election.

Administration officials say, for example, that one reason why some Sunnis are not running is that they have refused to sign documents renouncing their former affiliation with the Baath Party of Mr. Hussein, as demanded by Iraqi authorities.

"I've talked to a number of people in the Baath Party, and they bitterly resent having to sign such a document," said a Western diplomat in Baghdad. The diplomat acknowledged that the requirement had been an obstacle to a fully inclusive range of candidates, including figures associated with Mr. Hussein who are believed by Western diplomats to be ready to take part in the political process if they do not have to renounce their past ties.

He said Shiite and Kurdish leaders in Iraq had pressed for an outlawing of the old Baath Party since the beginning of the American occupation, when L. Paul Bremer III, the former civilian commander of the occupation, ordered a ban. There is disagreement within the administration about whether this was a mistake - reflecting a difficult tradeoff by American policy makers at the beginning of the occupation. But now many officials say they have no choice but to go along with what the interim Iraqi leadership wants.

American officials say many of those leaders oppose any effort to let former Baath Party officials run without renouncing their old affiliation, contending that their stand is analogous to banning the Nazi Party in postwar German elections.

"Given the number of people running for office in Iraq, you have to be impressed with the breadth of Iraqi society represented," the Western diplomat said. "What you don't have running, however, are the old-style Sunni nationalists, the old regime elements who used to dominate the country's politics."

Not everyone sees the idea of altering the results after the election as practical or desirable.

"This idea is a nonstarter," said Feisal al-Istrabadi, Iraq's deputy permanent representative at the United Nations. "But what it tells you is that inherently people are concerned about the problems with respect to legitimacy of the elections, not because people are going to boycott, but because people are going to be afraid to vote."

Mr. Istrabadi said that unlike most Iraqi officials in Baghdad, he personally did not oppose postponing the elections, an idea advocated by some Iraqi politicians and raised by Arab leaders in the region, if a delay could help secure certain areas and persuade people to vote.

He explained that he viewed the idea of adding legislators after the election as having practical and legal difficulties, because there was no provision in the law that would permit it. However, others say that because the plan for 275 members in the future legislature was put forward by an unelected government, an elected government might be able to do what it wanted.

"You do the math," said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a former adviser to the American occupation in Baghdad. "Iraq's population is about 60 percent Shiite, 20 percent Sunni and 20 percent Kurds. But if Sunnis don't vote, they could become only 5 percent of the electorate." Iraqis are to choose among 107 slates and 7,000 candidates.

If Sunnis are marginalized in that fashion, Mr. Diamond said, it could lead to further alienation, an increased insurgency and possibly a civil war, especially if the Kurdish and Shiite victors try to write a constitution that favors their interests over the Sunnis'.

A further fear in the administration is the possibility that continuing violence may force some Sunni candidates and parties to withdraw from the process before Jan. 30, on the ground that they have little chance of winning because voters may not turn out.

"Suppose that the violence is so bad that even if candidates are brave enough to stay in the race, but voters don't turn out, Sunni candidates in the end win very few seats," said the Western diplomat in Baghdad. "One thing you could see happen, I think, is some of these Sunni candidates withdrawing because their base isn't going to turn out."

Mr. Powell said last week that the United States did not favor talking with any leaders of the insurgency to get them to lay down their arms and take part in the election. "They're terrorists, they're murderers, and they have no interest in a free, fair election or democratic participation in such elections," he said.

He said the State Department had set up a "war room" to monitor election developments and spread the word to Iraqis that "if you are unhappy with what's going on, this is the time for you to express your view through an election."