IMGE: Iraq election
Karim Sahib  /  AFP - Getty Images
Election officials start counting ballots in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul late Thursday.
updated 12/15/2005 7:41:56 PM ET 2005-12-16T00:41:56

The heavy turnout for elections Thursday was a big step for Iraq’s fledgling democracy, but momentum could falter if Iraqis can’t quickly put together an inclusive government that lures discontented Sunni Arabs from the insurgency.

Similar impetus that followed the election of an interim parliament last January was soon lost in political infighting among Shiite Arabs, Kurds and Sunni Arabs, who took three months to form a government. The squabble gave a new push to the insurgency.

It may be no better this time.

Troubles deepen
In the eight months since the interim government took office, many of the country’s troubles have deepened — Shiite-Sunni tensions are worse, talk of Iraq breaking up along religious and ethnic lines has caught on, the Sunni-led insurgency shows no signs of abating.

Results of this election are expected to be similar to the previous one.

Shiite Arabs are a majority of Iraq’s population, and the United Iraqi Alliance — a collection of Shiite religious parties — is likely to again hold the far biggest bloc in parliament. Alliance officials predict they will win 120 of the 275 seats.

Sunni Arabs and Kurds, two minorities that together account for 30 percent to 40 percent of the estimated 27 million Iraqis, are expected to win 35-50 seats each.

A secular coalition led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi could win around 35 seats, while a mostly Shiite slate led by former Washington insider Ahmad Chalabi is expected to take 5-10 seats.

With its dominant position, the United Iraqi Alliance would likely try to renew its partnership with the two main Kurdish parties in a coalition government, alliance officials said, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the subject’s sensitivity.

They said the Shiite alliance would not invite major Sunni Arab groups to join the coalition, preferring to hand-pick Sunni figures.

That might provide token Sunni representation in the government. But it would keep out Sunni leaders with influence in areas where the Sunni-dominated insurgency is most active, diminishing chances for meaningful dialogue with insurgent factions.

Two power brokers?
Allawi and Chalabi, meanwhile, could play roles as power brokers in efforts to form a coalition government, and possibly be given important Cabinet posts.

Even with a greater Sunni role, however, it will be difficult to get insurgents with a wide array of goals to give up violence and turn to politics.

In addition, sectarian tensions fed by bombings, kidnappings and charges of abuse against Sunni Arab detainees by Shiite security forces may intensify when the new parliament rekindles the bitter dispute over the constitution.

For Sunnis, concerns linger
Sunni Arab politicians signed off on the document last fall, but only on condition the next parliament allow lawmakers to look into amending it and put proposed changes to a nationwide vote.

Sunni Arabs believe current provisions on federalism could lead to Iraq’s breakup. They also say the charter does not put enough emphasis on the country’s Arab identity, and they object to what they view as its prejudice against members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.

But Shiites and Kurds are not likely to agree to dilute federalism, and they strongly support keeping former Baathists out of government, having both suffered heavily during a Saddam regime that was dominated by Sunni Arabs.

The Kurds also jealously guard the self-rule they have enjoyed in three northern provinces since 1991, and Shiite politicians seem determined to gain the same privilege for southern areas where Shiites are the majority.

U.S. officials have argued that a strong voter turnout among Sunni Arabs, as happened Thursday after the group mostly boycotted last January’s election, would herald political inclusion and help reduce violence.

Such hopes assume Sunnis will drop support for the insurgency in exchange for a respectable number of lawmakers and Cabinet posts. But the big Sunni turnout may only reflect the minority’s desire to curb domination of Shiites and Kurds — rather than a genuine preference for politics over violence.

“I think the elections are a positive step, but it will not be enough to ensure stability,” U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said. “There should be a good government that represents all Iraqis.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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