Robert Fisk
IRAQ Election Will Change the World. But....
Sat Jan 29, 2005 21:23


This Election Will Change the World. But Not in the Way the Americans Imagined
By Robert Fisk
The Independent U.K.
Saturday 29 January 2005

Shias are about to inherit Iraq, but the election tomorrow that will bring them to power is creating deep fears among the Arab kings and dictators of the Middle East that their Sunni leadership is under threat.

America has insisted on these elections - which will produce a largely Shia parliament representing Iraq's largest religious community - because they are supposed to provide an exit strategy for embattled US forces, but they seem set to change the geopolitical map of the Arab world in ways the Americans could never have imagined. For George Bush and Tony Blair this is the law of unintended consequences writ large.

Amid curfews, frontier closures and country-wide travel restrictions, voting in Iraq will begin tomorrow under the threat of Osama bin Laden's ruling that the poll represents an "apostasy". Voting started among expatriate Iraqis yesterday in Britain, the US, Sweden, Syria and other countries, but the turnout was much smaller than expected.

The Americans have talked up the possibility of massive bloodshed tomorrow and US intelligence authorities have warned embassy staff in Baghdad that insurgents may have been "saving up" suicide bombers for mass attacks on polling stations.

But outside Iraq, Arab leaders are talking of a Shia "Crescent" that will run from Iran through Iraq to Lebanon via Syria, whose Alawite leadership forms a branch of Shia Islam. The underdogs of the Middle East, repressed under the Ottomans, the British and then the pro-Western dictators of the region, will be a new and potent political force.

While Shia political parties in Iraq have promised that they will not demand an Islamic republic - their speeches suggest that they have no desire to recreate the Iranian revolution in their country - their inevitable victory in an election that Iraq's Sunnis will largely boycott mean that this country will become the first Arab nation to be led by Shias.

On the surface, this may not be apparent; Iyad Allawi, the former CIA agent and current Shia "interim" Prime Minister, is widely tipped as the only viable choice for the next prime minister - but the kings and emirs of the Gulf are facing the prospect with trepidation.

In Bahrain, a Sunni monarchy rules over a Shia majority that staged a mini-insurrection in the 1990s. Saudi Arabia has long treated its Shia minority with suspicion and repression.

In the Arab world, they say that God favoured the Shia with oil. Shias live above the richest oil reserves in Saudi Arabia and upon some of the Kuwaiti oil fields. Apart from Mosul, Iraqi Shias live almost exclusively amid their own country's massive oil fields. Iran's oil wealth is controlled by the country's overwhelming Shia majority.

What does all this presage for the Sunni potentates of the Arabian peninsula? Iraq's new national assembly and the next interim government it selects will empower Shias throughout the region, inviting them to question why they too cannot be given a fair share of their country's decision-making.

The Americans originally feared that parliamentary elections in Iraq would create a Shia Islamic republic and made inevitable - and unnecessary - warnings to Iran not to interfere in Iraq. But now they are far more frightened that without elections the 60 per cent Shia community would join the Sunni insurgency.

Tomorrow's poll is thus, for the Americans, a means to an end, a way of claiming that - while Iraq may not have become the stable, liberal democracy they claimed they would create - it has started its journey on the way to Western-style freedom and that American forces can leave.

Few in Iraq believe that these elections will end the insurgency, let alone bring peace and stability. By holding the poll now - when the Shias, who are not fighting the Americans, are voting while the Sunnis, who are fighting the Americans, are not - the elections can only sharpen the divisions between the country's two largest communities.

While Washington had clearly not envisaged the results of its invasion in this way, its demand for "democracy" is now moving the tectonic plates of the Middle East in a new and uncertain direction. The Arab states outside the Shia "Crescent" fear Shia political power even more than they are frightened by genuine democracy.

No wonder, then, King Abdullah of Jordan is warning that this could destabilise the Gulf and pose a "challenge" to the United States. This may also account for the tolerant attitude of Jordan towards the insurgency, many of whose leaders freely cross the border with Iraq.

The American claim that they move secretly from Syria into Iraq appears largely false; the men who run the rebellion against US rule in Iraq are not likely to smuggle themselves across the Syrian-Iraqi desert when they can travel "legally" across the Jordanian border.

Tomorrow's election may be bloody. It may well produce a parliament so top-heavy with Shia candidates that the Americans will be tempted to "top up" the Sunni assembly members by choosing some of their own, who will inevitably be accused of collaboration. But it will establish Shia power in Iraq - and in the wider Arab world - for the first time since the great split between Sunnis and Shias that followed the death of the Prophet Muhammad.


Iraqi President Says Most Iraqis Won't Vote

Saturday 29 January 2005

BAGHDAD - Iraq's president said on Saturday he expected violence to deter the majority of Iraqis from voting in Sunday's landmark election.

"What we hope is that most Iraqis will take part in the election, but we know that the majority will not because of the security situation," President Ghazi al-Yawar told reporters.

"The majority will decide not to take part, not because they are boycotting the election, but because of the security situation," said Yawar, a Sunni Muslim Arab.

There has been a sharp increase in violence, including car bomb blasts, mortar attacks and shootings, this week as polling day approaches. The U.S. military said attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops had trebled in the past seven days.

Yawar's remarks contrasted with an appeal by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi for all Iraqis to defy violence and vote.

"I ask them to participate in the elections whether they are inside or outside Iraq: Sunnis, Shi'ites, Kurds, Christians," Allawi told Sky television in Baghdad. An estimated 14 million Iraqis are eligible to vote on Sunday in Iraq's first multi-party election since the 1950s.

Insurgent groups, particularly the organization headed by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, have vowed to disrupt voting and stop people from going to polling centers.

Around 6,000 polling centers have been set up around Iraq, but the location of many is being kept secret until the last minute to minimize the risk that they will be bombed.

Turnout is expected to be low in Sunni Arab areas, where the insurgency gripping Iraq for nearly two years is focused. The government has said it hopes for a national turnout of around 50 percent.

Yawar, whose position is mainly ceremonial, also said any political process that did not include Sunnis, Kurds and Shi'ites, Iraq's three main religious and ethnic groups, would be invalid.

Shi'ites, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq's population and were oppressed during Saddam Hussein (news - web sites)'s rule, are widely expected to dominate the polls.

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Survey Finds Deep Divisions in Iraq
Zogby International | Press Release

Friday 28 January 2005

Sunni Arabs overwhelmingly reject Sunday elections; majority of Sunnis, Shiites favor U.S. Withdrawal, New Abu Dhabi TV / Zogby poll reveals.

Iraq's Sunday elections will be held against a backdrop of deep division between the country's ethnic groups, with an overwhelming majority of Sunni Arabs refusing to vote in the January 30 elections, a new Abu Dhabi TV/Zogby International poll finds. The poll also finds majorities of both Iraq's Shiites and Sunnis calling for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from their soil. Zogby International polled 805 Iraqi adults from January 19 to 23, 2005 on behalf of television broadcaster Abu Dhabi TV. The margin of error is +/- 3.6 percentage points.

The survey, to be released at 5 p.m. ET on Abu Dhabi Television, found three-quarters (76%) of Sunni Arabs say they definitely will not vote in the January 30 elections, while just 9% say they are likely to vote. A majority of Shiites (80%) say they are likely to vote or definitely will vote, as are a smaller majority of Kurds (57%).

Majorities of both Sunni Arabs (82%) and Shiites (69%) also favor U.S. forces withdrawing either immediately or after an elected government is in place.

The poll also found that of Iraq's ethnic and religious groups, only the Kurds believe the U.S. will help Iraq over the next five years, while half (49%) of Shiites and a majority (64%) of Sunni Arabs believe the U.S. will hurt Iraq.

There are deep divisions that exist, "divisions that are so deep and pronounced that this election, instead of bringing people together, may very well tear them apart," said Dr. James Zogby, an analyst for Zogby International and host of Abu Dhabi TV's "Viewpoint". The closest thing to this in America isn't red and blue states. It's probably the election of 1860.

The poll also finds that, while a majority of Shiites (84%) and Kurds (64%) wish to hold the elections Sunday as planned, Sunni Arabs overwhelmingly favor delaying the vote (62%).

What's truly alarming isn't the number of Sunni Arabs who want to delay Sunday's vote, Zogby said. What's alarming is that more than half, 53% in this survey, believe that ongoing attacks in Iraq are a legitimate form of resistance. With this group already boycotting the election, this makes for a very violent combination.

Only the Kurds seem to favor a continued U.S. presence, and are likely to outright reject violent resistance, Zogby added.

The survey also asked Iraqis which nations they believed it was possible to foster improved relations with. While a majority of Iraqis believe relations can be improved between Iraq and neighbors Kuwait, Turkey, and Iran, all ethnic and religious groups overwhelmingly rejected improving relations with the State of Israel.

Iraqis do not desire to remake their country in the image of neighboring Iran, however. Three-in-five (59%) favor a system where citizens are allowed to practice their own religion, while one-in-three (34%) would prefer an Islamic government.

The survey was conducted throughout Iraq, including the cities of Baghdad, Hilla, Karbala and Kirkuk, as well as the Mohafazat (provinces) of Diala and Anbar.

Abu Dhabi TV/Zogby International conducted interviews of 805 Iraqis. Field work dates were from 1/19/05 thru 1/23/05. The margin of error is +/- 3.6 percentage points. Slight weights were added to education, ethnicity, religion, gender to more accurately reflect the population. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.
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