Doubts about holding Iraqi national elections on Jan. 30 produced an alliance few believed possible — Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds united in calling for a delay. Less than 24 hours later, the alliance collapsed after Shiite Arabs made clear they would not accept any postponement.
The flap over the election date, which began Friday, illustrates the complexity of Iraq’s ethnic-based politics. It also provides insights into the welter of conflicting interests and views in a fragmented country trying to build democracy in the midst of an armed uprising and foreign military occupation.
Sunni Muslim politicians pushed for the delay because of widespread anger within their community over this month’s attack on the Sunni insurgent base of Fallujah, which in turn produced a call by Sunni clerics to boycott the vote.
In calling for a delay, the Sunnis managed to win backing of representatives from the country’s two leading Kurdish parties. Collectively, the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs form about 40 percent of Iraq’s nearly 26 million people — the rest of whom are mostly Shiites.
But when the Shiite clerical leadership refused to delay the balloting, the Kurds waffled, claiming they never intended to agree to a postponement and they were ready for elections whenever they occur. The Iraqi National Accord, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s party, took part in the meeting that produced the call for the delay.
But as soon as the Shiites spoke out, Allawi’s government said it was sticking by the Jan. 30 date and his Accord party also said it never intended to join in the call for an election delay.
One Shiite official, asked not to be identified, said that if the Shiites lost on the battle over the election date, they might demand their own autonomous region in the south similar to what the Kurds have in the north.
For the Kurds, a major goal is control of Kirkuk, a major oil-producing center and ethnically mixed city that is outside the Kurdish-ruled autonomous region. The city’s major ethnic communities — Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen — each consider Kirkuk their own.
Kurdish parties have been encouraging Kurds who were displaced from the Kirkuk area by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab, to return to the city. The goal is to increase Kurdish numbers in time for a parallel election Jan. 30, in which voters in the city will decide whether to join the Kurdish autonomous region.
Delaying the election would give the Kurds more time to boost their numbers in Kirkuk, political analysts say.
“The Kurdish political parties have interests in postponing the general elections for a certain period of time, simply to guarantee that the municipal elections in Kirkuk will be also postponed,” Kurdish political analyst Assos Hardi said.
Before last week’s postponement call, both Kurdish parties — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party — had insisted that the referendum on the status of Kirkuk should not be held until the government had implemented Article 58 of Iraq’s interim constitution.
That article states that all Iraqis, including Kurds, who were displaced under Saddam’s regime, have the right to return to their homes and receive compensation. Both parties, however, publicly deny any link between the timing of the Kirkuk vote and the national election.
“These are totally different issues,” said PUK spokesman Sero Kihdar said. “Elections in Kirkuk will not be possible if the law (Article 58) isn’t implemented. But at the same time, we are ready for the general elections.”
Fear of overwhelming Shiite victory
The contacts between the Kurdish and Sunni Arab parties was also motivated by their common fear of an overwhelming Shiite victory, especially if the Sunni clerics convince many of their followers not to take part in the election.
Hardi, the Kurdish analyst, said the Shiites “are trying, peacefully, to take power in Iraq and all estimates point to their massive victory.”
Anticipating a big victory, the Shiites want no delay in the election, believing it will guarantee them the power long denied them under Ottoman, British and Saddam’s rule.
Hussain al-Shahristani, who is close to the top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, warned the generally peaceful Shiite community might resort to “other alternatives” if the election were delayed.
Bayan Jaber, a member of a leading Shiite party, said a delay would require amending the interim constitution. If that happened, Jaber said “the doors will be open for other amendments and those calling for postponement will be the losers at the end.”
The Kurds, for one, aren’t anxious for an open-ended review of the interim constitution. The document gives the Kurds, estimated at no more than 20 percent of the population, an effective veto of the permanent constitution to be drafted by the parliament elected in January.
Under the temporary charter, if two-thirds of the voters in three provinces reject the permanent constitution, it would fail to win ratification. The Kurds control three provinces.