Fault Lines

<b>By Dilip Hiro</b><br> The election has exposed and sharpened the sectarian and ethnic divisions in Iraqi society.

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By Dilip Hiro

An apt headline, summarizing the results of the elections to Iraq’s 275-representative-strong National Assembly on January 30, would be: “No surprises, no upsets.”

Given a large voter turnout in the Shiite majority areas and an even a larger one in the Kurdistan region, it was widely predicted that the Shiite- and Kurdish-dominated alliances would top the polls. They did. As expected, due to the widespread Sunni boycott of the election, the only Sunni-dominated list that managed to win any seats garnered just five — one-eleventh of the seats that the Sunnis should have won.

Overall, the poll has exposed and sharpened the sectarian and ethnic fault lines in Iraqi society. At the same time, bolstered by a popular mandate, the new government seems set on a collision course with the American occupiers regarding the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.

Each of the three major communities has come to nurture a different scenario for the post-Saddam era. Shorn of their long-held power and yet not reconciled to powerlessness, Sunni leaders are still in disarray, focusing merely on expelling the Americans from their country. For minority Kurds, ethnically and linguistically set apart from Arabs, post-Saddam Iraq holds the promise of a sovereign state of Kurdistan with the oil-rich city of Kirkuk as its capital.

Driven by ethnic nationalism, the Kurds outdid the Shiites in their enthusiasm for balloting. The 90%-plus voter turnout in the three Kurdish-dominated provinces as well as in the ethnically-mixed provinces of Nineveh (capital, Mosul) and Tamim (capital, Kirkuk) has, not surprisingly, strengthened the bargaining power of the Kurdish leaders. Their Kurdistan Alliance gained 25 extra seats at the expense of Sunni Arabs. This has raised tensions between the two communities, especially in Kirkuk and Mosul, the second largest Iraqi city.

For the long-suppressed Shiite majority, the fall of Saddam’s regime opened up for the first time the prospect of a popularly-elected, Shiite-led government in Iraq. Little wonder that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani declared that voting was a religious duty for believers. Accepting Sistani’s fatwa (religious decree) unquestioningly, Shiite Muslims streamed to the polling centers on January 30. By backing the Sistani-inspired United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), they underscored the UIA’s 22-point manifesto, where the demand for “a timetable for the withdrawal of the multinational forces from Iraq” is almost at the top.

As it happens, this Shiite demand is also popular among Sunnis, from moderates to insurgents. It is up to the leaders of the better-organized Shiite community to find ways to end the alienation most Sunnis are feeling.

Once the National Assembly has elected a Presidency Council — a President and two deputies — it will elect an executive Prime Minister and a cabinet. A Shiite-majority government is mandated to demand immediate negotiations with the Bush administration on the modalities of the withdrawal of the American and other foreign troops from Iraq.

But it won’t get far. “We will not set an artificial time table for leaving Iraq, because that would embolden the terrorists and make them believe they can wait us out,” said President George W. Bush in his State of the Union speech on February 2. “We are in Iraq to achieve a result: a country that is democratic, representative of all its people, at peace with its neighbors, and able to defend itself.” No prizes for guessing how long it will take to realize this over-ambitious set of Bush objectives.

So there is a strong prospect of a crisis in Baghdad soon after the inauguration of an elected government.

Besides administering Iraq, the new government will supervise the drafting of the permanent constitution by the National Assembly. Those charged with this task will face two major problems: defining the relationship between state and mosque and the degree of autonomy the Kurds are to receive (not to mention the boundaries of the region where it is to be exercised).

The Role of Islam

A year ago, when the interim constitution was being drafted by the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) under the supervision of Paul Bremer, the chief administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the issue of Islam and the state proved contentious. When IGC President Muhsin Abdul Hamid proposed making the Sharia “the primary basis” of law in the interim constitution, Bremer threatened to veto the document. (The Sharia is a compendium of the Koran and the Hadith, Sayings and Doings of Prophet Muhammad.) In the end, IGC members compromised by describing the Sharia as “a main source” of Iraqi legislation.

Following the recent poll, Shiite religious leaders staked out a demand. On February 6, a spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Ishaq al Fayad, said, “All of the ulema [clergy] and marja [religious leaders], and the majority of the Iraqi people want the National Assembly to make Islam the [sole] source of legislation in the permanent constitution and to reject any law that is contrary to Islam.” Sistani backed the statement. A week later, Hussein Shahristani, a leader of the UIA, the winner of 51% of the National Assembly seats, repeated the demand.

While Shiites overwhelmingly favor specifying the Sharia as the sole source of legislation, the Kurdish leaders are not so keen. And the Americans are decidedly against it. But such a provision in the constitution could be an effective way to conciliate the Sunni militants who want “the flag of Islam to fly in Iraq.”

The second intractable problem concerns the Kurdish demand that the present boundaries of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region (KAR) consisting of three provinces — formed during the Baathist rule in 1974 — be expanded to include the oil-rich Tamim province. The fact that the Kurdistan Alliance secured 48% of the vote (due to the poll boycott by most Sunni Arabs and many Sunni Turkmen) in the simultaneously held elections to the region’s Provincial Council has emboldened the Kurdish leaders.

Any enlargement of the KAR will be opposed bitterly not only by local Arabs and Turkmen but also by neighboring Turkey. It fears that the oil revenue from Tamim will make the KAR economically vibrant and pave the way for the declaration of an independent Kurdistan. That in turn will inspire Turkish Kurds in southeastern Turkey to revive their armed struggle for independence.

But, intoxicated by their electoral success, Iraqi Kurdish leaders are likely to turn a deaf ear to the concerns of Turkey or the fears of their ethnic Arab and Turkmen neighbors. So there is trouble brewing ahead within Iraq on ethnic lines — Kurds versus Arabs and Turkmen — that threatens to spill over into adjoining Turkey. In other words, Bush’s much trumpeted electoral turning point is likely to bring in its train even more severe problems than existed before.

Dilip Hiro is the author of Secrets and Lies: Operation “Iraqi Freedom” and After (Nation Books) and The Essential Middle East: A Comprehensive Guide (Carrol & Graf).

Copyright C2005 Dilip Hiro


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