- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2005

BAGHDAD — Sunday’s elections, anticipated in most of Iraq as an opportunity to acquire political power and a better future, are seen by many Sunni Arabs as an occasion for disenfranchisement and despair.

“Let them have their elections and win,” said one 38-year-old engineer who did not want his name used. “It will be an illegitimate government.

“Legitimate elections cannot be held because the previous government has not yet stepped down. I voted for Saddam. When he says he has resigned, I’ll take part in elections.”

During his long rule, deposed dictator Saddam Hussein systematically concentrated political power and the best jobs in the hands of the Sunnis, who make up about 20 percent of the population.

Many of them lost their jobs when Ba’athists were purged from the security forces and government after Saddam was overthrown in 2003. As a result, Sunnis are primarily behind the country’s violent insurgency, which has been most effective in Sunni areas.

Even among those who oppose the violence, there is deep frustration and anger.

“Many people thought when the Americans came they would change [Iraq] into heaven,” said Khaled Dulaymi, who lost his job in the Information Ministry when Saddam’s regime fell and now is struggling to pay for the black-market kerosene he needs to power the generators that heat and light his home.

“But now people say it would have been better if they had left us with Saddam Hussein,” said the 40-year-old, his politeness masking a simmering rage as he served tea to a foreign guest.

“I see all the political parties, and they’re just empty. All of them are from outside Iraq. None of them has honor. I will not vote.”

Shi’ite leaders, encouraged by U.S. officials and the United Nations, have promised that Sunnis will play an important role in the new national assembly and the government it chooses, even if they fare poorly in Sunday’s vote.

“We want an Iraq that protects freedoms, a democratic Iraq for all Iraqis, an Iraq that respects the Islamic identity of the Iraqi people,” Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the largest Shi’ite coalition, said earlier this month.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell also has hinted that a way will be found to empower Sunnis after the election, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said last week that it was “critical” for the new government to “reach out to the Arab nationalist component of society, especially the Sunni Arabs.”

But Hatem Mukhlis, the leader of the Iraqi National Movement party, said it was not merely the loss of power that was fueling Sunni apathy.

“All the uprisings and coups against Saddam came from Sunni areas,” said Mr. Mukhlis, a native of Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit. “They were all Iraqis under pressure from Saddam, and they revolted. Now they’re under pressure from Americans, and they’re revolting.”

The extent of the Sunni antipathy is hard to quantify. Most anticipate participation by pious Sunnis will be lower than among secular ones, simply because they have fewer options.

The Association of Muslim Scholars, a group of Sunni clerics with fundamentalist overtones, has called for a boycott of the elections. The Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has withdrawn, although its name will remain among the 111 tickets on the ballot.

“What we have here is the Sunni political leadership understanding that they’re not going to get a lot of votes, so they don’t have a lot of incentive to take part in the elections,” said Sharif Ali bin Hussein, leader of the Constitutional Monarchy Party, which claims to represent Sunni Arabs.

A poll sponsored by the Washington-based International Republican Institute found that a little more than half of Sunni Arabs intend to vote on Sunday — far fewer than the 80 percent to 90 percent of Shi’ites and Kurds who plan to turn out. But because of security concerns, the survey was not conducted in the most volatile Sunni provinces, so the percentage actually may be smaller.

Over the course of seven weeks of interviews throughout Iraq, not one Sunni Arab other than those active in secular political parties said he would definitely vote.

Even more moderate Sunnis say this is not the time for elections.

“I don’t think it’s a good step forward,” said Iyad Adib, a primary school English teacher in Baghdad. “We need more stability to make this step. If the world accepted this election, it will be a disaster.”

Many Sunnis feel as if they’ve been unfairly tarred as terrorists because of the actions of Abu Musab Zarqawi’s al Qaeda-linked warriors and insurgents inspired by extremist Sunni teachings such as Wahhabism and Salafism.

“Under the U.S. tank, I have no choices,” said Abu Hamra al-Mokhtar, an antiques dealer. “They’ve equated Sunnis with terrorists. Under Saddam, one of out 1,000 Iraqis was a Salafi. Now it’s 100 out of 1,000, all because of the Americans.”

Although many candidates have been too frightened to publicize their names, the resistance has been growing in numbers and audacity. Reports of insurgent checkpoints — such as those in Fallujah before the November assault by U.S. forces — have been trickling in from other parts of the country, including Baghdad.

In the Sunni triangle city of Baqouba, Zarqawi’s group has been threatening to kill anyone who considers voting.

His organization “has a strong presence here, and I have seen them on the street,” said Abdul-Qader Shihab Amed, a 27-year-old taxi driver. “I can see that the resistance is growing stronger day by day.”

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