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Final drive to coax Sunnis to polls

The legitimacy of Iraqi election is likely to hinge on voter turnout by the Sunni minority.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 27, 2005


The problem of low Sunni turnout in Sunday's elections has dominated discussion among senior Iraqi officials and US diplomats for months now. The fear is that it could deepen the insurgency and lead to a civil war between Sunni Arab insurgents and the Shiite Arab majority, who are likely to take power for the first time in Iraq's history.

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One recent poll shows that up to 80 percent of Iraq's eligible Shiite and Kurdish voters will cast ballots. But Sunni turnout is pegged at 20 percent - or less.

Perceptions of the legitimacy of this democratic process, and thus the future stability of Iraq, may hinge on how many Sunnis vote, say analysts.

With the election just days away, a US-financed television ad blitz is now under way to persuade Sunnis they have more to lose than gain from standing outside the process. At least 10 ads a day will be carried until election day on Al Arabiya, one of the Arab world's most popular television stations, as well as on two other Arab satellite stations and local Iraqi TV.

As US and Iraqi officials scramble to coax Sunnis to the polls, they are also putting pressure on the likely election winners to create a special role for Sunnis in the writing of Iraq's new constitution, the major task ahead of the 275 legislators whom Iraqis will choose.

"Everyone understands that we need significant Sunni participation if Iraq's transition is going to work,'' says a US diplomat in Baghdad. "Preferably, that participation will be in the election, but at least in the drafting of the constitution."

Turnout is crucial because it will determine how many votes will be required to win a seat in the assembly. A Sunni turnout of anything less than 20 percent of the total vote (their estimated percentage of the Iraqi population) means Sunnis will be under-represented in the new parliament.

Wednesday's violence did little to raise hopes for a major Sunni turnout. A US convoy was attacked on the road to Baghdad's airport, two schools scheduled to be used as polling places were firebombed, and six other bombs were found and defused in the capital. Elsewhere, 31 marines were killed in a helicopter crash in western Iraq; in Ramadi, there were clashes between insurgents and Iraqi forces; and Al-Arabiya broadcast a videotape of three election workers kidnapped in the troubled northern city of Mosul. All of the incidents occurred in heavily Sunni areas.

Iraq's Shiite majority, who make up about 60 percent of the population, are eager to vote, as are the Kurdish minority in the north. Both groups suffered heavily under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime, and a poll concluded on Jan. 7 by the US-funded International Republican Institute (IRI) found that nearly 80 percent in both communities say they are very likely to vote. Election officials say actual numbers will probably be below these figures.

"What people say they're going to do and what they actually do is not always the same,'' says a Western election adviser. "People are reluctant for or a variety of good reasons - if a bomb goes off and they feel they need to stay away for the safety of their family, that's very understandable."

"We'll vote and serve the people because that's what the hawza has told us to do,'' says Sheikh Ali al-Jumali, a Shiite preacher in Baghdad, referring to Shiite religious leadership. "We are going to do good by voting."