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Iraq Votes: Can Non-Sectarian Parties Gain? | The Nation

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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

Iraq Votes: Can Non-Sectarian Parties Gain?

This is the last of the three-part series on Iraq's provincial elections, scheduled for tomorrow.

After four years under a government dominated by Shiite religious parties with close ties to Iran, Iraqi voters are ready for change, says Aiham Alsammarae. An American citizen who returned to Iraq in 2003, and who served as Iraq's electricity minister from 2003-2005, Alsammarae is a fierce, secular Sunni nationalist who is working with Iyad Allawi, the secular Shiite former Iraqi prime minister, to elect candidates in Saturday's provincial election who represent a turn away from ethnic and sectarian identity politics.

"I don't want to underestimate the religious parties," Alsammarae says, referring to the Islamic Dawa party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), led by Abdel Aziz al-Hakim. "But our analysis is that over the last four years the religious parties tried everything and proved that they are not successful leaders. They couldn't deliver what they promised. They could not do anything right."

As a result, says Alsammarae, who is working not only with Allawi but with tribal leaders in his native Salahuddin province north of Baghdad and with elements of the Awakening movement that began in Anbar province in 2006, voters are turning against the religious parties.

"In the south, people are asking: What have they done for us?" he says. "There are no jobs. There is no electricity and water. The schools and hospitals are terrible. And there is so much corruption."

The January 31 election will severely test Alsammarae's thesis. Many analysts agree that the religious parties have lost support across Iraq, but they retain built-in advantages, including control of the media, illicit use of government funds, and quiet support from Iraq's clerical establishment. And Alsammarae says that Dawa and ISCI are getting help from Tehran, too. "Most of their money comes from Iran," he charges. "But we know that these parties do not have a real political base."

The secular parties, Sunni-led parties, and nationalist alliances in Iraq hope to make major gains in Saturday's vote, especially in three key provinces. In Nineveh, up north, they hope to oust a minority Kurdish government in a province that is three-fourths Sunni Arab. In Baghdad, home to a quarter of Iraq's population, they hope to lay the groundwork for a coalition that can topple the Dawa-ISCI bloc. And in mixed Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, they also expect major gains.

"Most of all we are targeting Baghdad," says Alsammarae. "In Baghdad, the Awakening movement is the biggest party. It represents probably 25 percent of the vote, even if the election is only semi-fair. Wwe've built a real organization there, and there are a lot of liberal and secular parties. There is a good chance we will make major gains in Baghdad." He expects that Dawa and ISCI will get only 15 percent of the vote. "Baghdad leads the country, so success there will show where the country is going," he says.

Iyad Allawi, leader of Iraqiya, agrees with Alsammarae that Iraqis are ready for change. "The mood is definitely changing," he says. "Iraqis have been angry at the way the sectarian forces have handled the situation." According to Allawi, Iraqis are not especially religious. "That was one of the mistakes committed [by the United States] aftyer 2003, when the Iraqi Governing Council was formed along sectarian lines. And after that the religious, sectarian grops really mushroomed." Both Allawi and Alsammarae expect the series of elections in 2009-2010 to redraw the map of Iraqi politics.

But both men say that enormous obstacles remain, and that the election is likely to be marred by fraud, vote rigging, and violence. "I am very worried," says Allawi. "I have been subject to many threats." During the last round, in 2005, at least thirteen of the candidates affiliated with Allawi's movement were assassinated. Alsammarae has found it impossible to return to Baghdad, spending time in Amman, Beirut, and in Irbil, in the Kurdish north, where security is better.

Already this year, at least five candidates in the provincial elections have been assassinated, and in many districts campaigning is nearly impossible.

Going into tomorrow's vote, many Iraqis who've been shut out of power since 2003 expect to make gains. They include the Sunni Arabs, who boycotted the last round, the disenfranchised Shiites who have tended to support Muqtada al-Sadr's movement in the past, and a wide range of secular, liberal, nationalist, and communist parties and groups. The biggest question is: What will happen if the election goes against them, especially if it is considered fraudulent or rigged? Many areas, from Mosul to Baquba to Baghdad, could descend into violence, and it's possible that an armed resistance movement could re-emerge, targeting the Iraqi government, its security forces, and key Iraqi leaders from the religious bloc. If so, it could start to gather momentum just as President Obama begins withdrawing US forces.

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