If Sunnis won't vote, then what?

Sectarian split a risk in Iraq's Jan. 30 election.

Iman Abit al-Wahid is so afraid that she pulled her oldest daughter out of medical school and sent her son to a rural village for safety. Hassan Kazal Omran says many stores stopped distributing voter registration cards after death threats were slipped under their doors. Ahmed al-Mashdany says the whole thing is fixed and will taint everyone associated with it.

In the Sunni Arab communities of Iraq there seem to be as many reasons - fear, anger, confusion - to plan to stay away from the polls as there are people. The message is clear. While many Sunnis say they'd like to vote in the election scheduled for Jan. 30, most say they probably won't.

With growing tension between Iraq's majority Shiites and the Sunni Arab minority who have always dominated the country's government, low Sunni participation come election day is likely to further divide, rather than unite, Iraq's two most important constituencies. Further division, in the worst case, could nudge Iraq closer to civil war.

The leading Sunni political parties are now positioning themselves to reject the vote and its consequence - the writing of a new constitution - as unfair. If there is high turnout among the country's Shiites, as expected, that assembly will be packed with Shiite politicians who suffered mightily under Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime and could write a constitution that emphasizes majority rights at the expense of minorities.

Many worry this could lead to sectarian conflict. A largely Shiite government, vested with the sovereignty that an election lends, will be fighting a largely Sunni insurgency that has killed thousands of Iraqis in recent months.

"The Americans have set this up in such a way that a lot is at stake after this election,'' says Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan. "If the Sunnis are grossly underrepresented in this constitutional constituent assembly, it will be set up for a guerrilla war that lasts for decades."

This week, violence has continued to sweep Iraq. On Tuesday, Baghdad Governor Ali al-Haidari was murdered with six of his bodyguards in Baghdad, and a suicide bombing at an Iraqi special forces post killed 10. Mr. Haidari was the highest ranking government official killed since May. On Monday, three suicide bombings killed 16 Iraqis.

The violence, and the likelihood that many Sunni Arabs won't vote, prompted Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan to tell reporters in Cairo that an election delay might be possible if the government grows convinced it will lead to more Sunni participation. Iraq's independent electoral commission, however, said a delay is not being considered.

A delay would also carry risks, since it could prompt anger and violence among Shiites, who expect the election to be their path to power.

Average Iraqis of all stripes say they just want peace. But for many Sunnis - racked by doubts about the fairness of the process and intimidated by extremists who have threatened death to voters - voting itself seems too high a price to pay.

"I was mugged in front of my house just two weeks ago. Kidnapping has gotten worse and worse and I'm afraid to even open my front door now,'' says Mrs. Wahid, a math teacher and mother of three. "How am I going to feel safe going to vote?"

Wahid says she's generally apolitical and she wants honest leaders to come to power who can restore order. But because of the recent violence she can't imagine feeling safe enough to go to the polls in less than a month's time.

In addition to fear, confusion reigns for many. The biggest Shiite electoral list, the United Iraqi Alliance organized by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's top Shiite cleric, is backed by large numbers of Shiites simply because they trust Sistani. There is no Sunni corollary.

The best known Sunni group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, said last week that it was pulling out of the election. While there are numerous smaller Sunni groups participating, average Iraqis know little about the candidates. And while Sistani has urged Iraqis to vote as a religious duty, Sunni extremists have implied that voting is sinful.

In Wahid's Sunni neighborhood, you'd never guess that Iraq is gearing up for its first free national elections. There are no posters and so far, there has been no campaigning. While she says she watches television news, she hasn't been able to learn anything about the candidates. "I think they're all too afraid to go on TV."

There are also conspiracy theories circulating. Omar Saadi, a laborer, says he's not voting both out of fear and because he suspects the election results are being fixed by the US and Iran, the Shiite theocracy next door that has close ties to many of Iraq's leading Shiite politicians.

He's not the only one. King Abdullah, the Sunni monarch of Iraq's neighbor Jordan, has alleged that 1 million Iranians had entered Iraq to vote in the country's election.

While Iraqi officials say that's very unlikely, many Sunnis are willing to believe this and other claims of vote rigging. "I'm not going anywhere near this election - it's clearly dishonest,'' says Ahmad al-Mashdany, a retired government employee. "The American forces have prepared the electoral lists so that their candidates will win."

Mr. Cole says ambiguity over the actual numbers of Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq is one reason so many Sunni groups, particularly the more extreme ones, are reluctant to participate in the election. Most experts think Iraq is about 60 percent Shiite, 20 percent Sunni, and 15 percent Kurdish.

"A lot of these groups who have been claiming to speak for the Sunni Arabs wouldn't get that high a vote, so if they ran it would reveal how small their support actually is,'' he says. "By not participating they can position themselves to speak for the Sunni community afterwards."

Cole says there is still hope. The Shiite "leadership doesn't want a partition of Iraq, they very much want the country to stay together ... so they'll find some way to reach out to the Sunni Arabs.''

Meanwhile, in Shiite areas preparations for the election are building. Hassan Kazal Omran owns a store in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad's Karrada district that distributes government-subsidized food. The subsidized food lists, of which all Iraqi's belong, are being used for voter registration, and thousands of these stores across Iraq have been asked to hand out the documents that will be used to verify voters on election day.

Mr. Omran says all but three of the 204 families registered at his store have taken their registration cards, but on a recent visit to the government food distribution center, that wasn't the same story he heard from his Sunni counterparts.

"In some neighborhoods, the store owners have been threatened with death if they carry out this duty, so they refused,'' he says. "I hope this changes. If we give in to threats and there is no election now, we'll just be stuck, stuck in this miserable situation."

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