- Associated Press - Sunday, October 3, 2010

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — An Iraqi governor and leading Sunni politician said Sunday that the nation’s “last chance for democracy” could be derailed if the Shi’ite prime minister keeps his job despite losing to a Sunni-backed coalition in elections seven months ago.

Ninevah provincial Gov. Atheel al-Nujaifi’s warnings show the serious challenges to U.S.-led efforts at bringing Iraq‘s rival groups together in a unity government. Establishing a workable democracy in Iraq became one of the main U.S. goals of the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

In an Associated Press interview, the governor claimed Iraq is “headed for a dictatorship” if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki manages to hold on to power by making alliances with hard-line Shi’ite factions and Kurds.

“This is the last chance for democracy in Iraq,” Mr. al-Nujaifi said in an hourlong interview in his office in downtown Mosul, about 225 miles northwest of Baghdad. It is Iraq‘s third-largest city and a former al Qaeda stronghold.

His comments underscore the deep suspicions and frustrations among Iraq‘s once-dominant Sunnis, who lost their privileges with Saddam’s fall but had hopes of regaining a significant political voice after the narrow victory of a pro-Sunni coalition in March’s parliamentary elections.

Mr. al-Maliki has stepped up appeals for top Sunni figures to join talks over the next government but has so far been met with silence or defiance. The Sunnis say they do not trust him.

Without serious Sunni allies, Mr. al-Maliki could find himself at the head of a sharply divided country that would struggle to handle key issues such as reconstruction and security as U.S. force leave.

“If Iraqis can’t get together to form a government that is in keeping with the election results, there will be no longer any kind of support for democracy. And in the future there will be no desire to join the democratic process,” Mr. al-Nujaifi said.

The governor is part of the secular political Iraqiya coalition that is strongly backed by minority Sunnis. It narrowly defeated Mr. al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led political alliance, but without enough parliament seats to hold a majority and form a new government.

But Mr. al-Maliki now appears to have clinched a second term with support from hard-line Shi’ites and possibly Kurdish parties.

Iraqiya has said it will boycott another al-Maliki-run government, shutting out the Sunnis from top posts and policymaking. Mr. al-Nujaifi said that Iraqiya lawmakers will oppose Mr. al-Maliki’s administration from within parliament.

“This could lead to government institutions ceasing to work — they just won’t function any more,” he added.

However, Mr. al-Nujaifi insisted the political battle won’t mark a return to widespread sectarian violence, as U.S. and Iraqi officials fear.

Appearing relaxed and thoughtful during the frank talk, he maintained that “people are really tired of that kind of thing.”

In another sign of Iraq‘s ethnic and sectarian fault lines, officials again postponed a planned nationwide census from late October to Dec. 5.

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