An influential group of Iraqi Sunni Muslim clerics said on Tuesday that elections scheduled for January would be a farce unless they were nationwide.
Rebel control of several cities and a raging insurgency have raised doubts that the polls to elect a national assembly can be conducted throughout the troubled country.
“There won’t be elections. Even if they are held, they will be a laughing-stock and not credible among Iraqis,” Mohammed Bashar al-Faidhi, spokesman for the Muslim Clerics Association, told Reuters in an interview.
Guerrillas and militants control several cities and towns in mainly Sunni Muslim central Iraq, the region that is most fiercely opposed to Iraq’s U.S.-backed interim government.
Partial election defended
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have both said elections would still be valid, even if violence prevented voting in some areas.
“Excluding some parts (of Iraq) from elections would be the real knock-out for elections,” said Faidhi.
“It can’t be. The mere idea of exclusion gives the impression that it is not elections but a game, and I personally don’t think elections will be held on time.”
U.S. and Iraqi officials have promised a major effort to dislodge insurgents from areas where they are now strong so that elections can be held across the country in January.
The U.S. military said on Sunday it had retaken most of the northern city of Samarra but wresting control of the rebel bastion of Fallujah is expected to be far more difficult.
American marines assaulted Falluja in April but withdrew after fierce fighting and high casualties among Iraqis.
The Muslim Clerics Association is influential among Sunnis. Some Sunnis enjoyed power and privileges under toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who is himself a Sunni.
Sunnis wary of Shi’ites growing influence
Now they are worried about their fate in a country where Iraq’s majority Shi’ite Muslims have gained influence and expect the elections to give them more power.
Faidhi said the government of Allawi, who is a secular Shi’ite, had forfeited popularity by sticking to close to Iraq’s former U.S. occupiers, who are still seen as widely influential.
“The interim government is committing big mistakes against the Iraqi people they are supporting the occupation forces in their massacres against Iraqis,” he said.
“The government has no national role. The occupation is continuing.”
The Muslim Clerics Association has said it will not take part in elections while American troops are present in Iraq.
The group has played a mediating role to try and free Western and Arab hostages. About 140 foreigners and Iraqis have been kidnapped in Iraq since April. Many have been released, others beheaded or shot.
Faidhi said the Muslim Clerics Association had no direct links to kidnappers, but praised guerrillas for waging Jihad (holy war) on U.S. troops.
“We are proud of the resistance and perhaps wish to be part of it because it is an honor for the country,” he said.
Faidhi fears the kidnappings and video footage of beheadings will damage Islam’s image, saying Muslim clerics “do not sleep at night” worrying that such acts will hurt the insurgency.