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With elections over, the hard part remains

Elections in Iraq went better than expected, but the low Sunni turnout remains troubling. The hard part will be how to bring them into the political process.
Thousands of Iraqis make a trip on foot to the town of Al Alamara to vote Sunday after all car traffic was prohibited.
Thousands of Iraqis make a trip on foot to the town of Al Alamara to vote Sunday after all car traffic was prohibited.James Vellacott / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Iraq pulled off an election against all odds and the best efforts of insurgents to blow it up.

Now comes the hard part: forming a new governing coalition, writing a constitution and winning trust.

Achieving those goals will be tough because the election was tempered by the absence of many of the Sunni Arabs, who honored a boycott call and avoided the polls.

Without Sunni support, even among those who stayed home on election day, the new leadership is unlikely to win the public support necessary to quell the insurgency and speed the day when 150,000 U.S. troops can go home. Sunni Arabs are 20 percent of Iraq’s 26 million population and the core of the insurgency.

'Critical period'
“The most critical period is going to be the next 60 to 90 days while the results are being worked out,” said James Dobbins of the Rand Corp. “If the winners treat it as a winner-take-all contest in the American tradition, it’s probably going to further polarize the country and bring higher levels of violence.”

Yet such pessimistic assessments were not in the air Sunday.

Iraqi officials were nearly euphoric that they pulled off the election at all, given the enormous challenge of organizing a nationwide balloting in the midst of an insurgency where candidates were murdered, election workers threatened and polling stations blasted.

Only two months ago, some of the very politicians crowing about the success of Sunday’s balloting were openly calling for a delay, arguing it was simply too dangerous right now.

When the day actually came, turnout was heavy in Shiite and Kurdish areas.

Mixed success
By all accounts, however, turnout in Sunni areas of central, western and northern Iraq — the heartland of the rebellion — was only modest. Iraqi election officials said no official turnout figures would be available until all the votes are counted — possibly within the next 10 days.

But residents of Sunni cities such as Beiji, Samarra, Ramadi and Tikrit reported turnouts well below those of Shiite areas of the south and Kurdish strongholds in the north.

Journalists who visited polling stations in Mosul, Iraq’s third largest city, found large numbers of Kurds lined up to vote but fewer Sunni Arabs, although they are the largest community there.

Sunni Arabs may have voted in greater numbers in mixed areas of Baghdad and other cities, where pressure to boycott was less intense than in the Sunni heartland.

Nevertheless, the apparent low turnout in the Sunni provinces of Anbar, Salaheddin and Ninevah and in Baghdad’s Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah raises questions about whether Sunni Arabs will believe they have a stake in the new government — or in the new Iraq.

The new leadership could take a major step toward winning Sunni trust by ensuring a major Sunni role in the drafting of the new constitution — the major task of the 275-member National Assembly during its 11 months in office.

If all goes according to plan, the constitution will define power among Iraq’s disparate groups — Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Turkomen and others.

And — significantly — it will provide the legal foundation for another election in December.

If the Sunnis believe they have received a fair share of power, support for the insurgency might wane.

Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni elder statesman and candidate for the National Assembly, believes a Sunni role in drafting the constitution would go far toward easing disaffection.

“The main thing, I think, is we should really have a constitution written by representatives of all segments of Iraq’s population,” Pachachi said. “I think it would improve the security situation” — and encourage more Sunnis to vote when that December election comes around.