Iraq Election Worries Neighbors

CAIRO – Iraq’s neighbors have begun to worry seriously about its national election scheduled for Jan. 30.

Almost every day, a regional leader speaks out in favor of the vote because the alternative could be worse. High-ranking officials from Egypt, Jordan, and the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council have recently called for voter participation.

"I hope the elections are held on time, but with the participation of all [political] forces and [religious] sects," Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in a rare interview. "The fear is if one sect stays behind, this will lead to an escalation of violence and terrorism and we will remain in a vicious circle of killing and destruction."

After the Arab League summit at Sharm el-Sheik in Egypt, its secretary-general, Amr Moussa, had said a boycott would be "very dangerous" and that it might lead to "a sectarian or ethnical conflict."

But in calling for high voter turnout, Arab leaders are running against a countercurrent inside Iraq. The country’s main Sunni political party has already announced it will boycott the elections.

As many as 53 political parties and organizations have asked for their names to be dropped from the election lists in a bid to show their rejection of elections under U.S. occupation, according to the Chinese news agency Xinhua.

Some opponents of the elections have been resorting to violence. Several election officials have been killed in the last few weeks, besides party campaigners and three senior Kurdish politicians.

"Carrying out the poll under the existing unstable security situation is not feasible and is fruitless," U.S. ally Masoud Barzani, whose Kurdistan Democratic Party controls half of northern Iraq, told his party daily, al-Taakhi. Barzani quickly added, however, that Kurds would still participate in the election.

This was primarily to curtail the influence of Shia leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani over a new government, observers here say.

Indeed, the most likely outcome of the January elections is that a slate of Shia candidates will come to power. That would lead to the ascendancy of Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, whose Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq has been funded by the Iranian government for close to two decades.

Egyptian political analyst Ashraf Firadi thinks this will not pose a problem to the United States or peace in the region.

"The first thing they did was to refuse the theory of Ayatollah Khomeini," Firadi argues. "We have a statement from [Abdel Aziz’s slain brother] Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim where he says he doesn’t want to establish a religious government in Iraq, but a secular democratic government."

But other analysts are not so optimistic. When the United States tried to impose a constitution on Iraq last February, a group of Shia politicians lead by al-Hakim and advised by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani initially refused to sign it. They said the constitution afforded too many rights to women, and demanded that Islamic Sharia law be adopted as the family law.

Hakim and Sistani relented only when the United States promised to scrap the interim constitution after an elected government was in place.

"They will probably be able to pull the elections together," says Mohammed Waked of the independent Egyptian Anti-Globalization Group. "But it will not change things, except that it will bring the Shias to power as an organized group. And when the Americans fail to deliver their aspirations, they’ll have a double problem. So it’s really going to get worse and worse as far as the American plan is concerned."

And that means more worries throughout the region. Egyptian researcher Samer Sulayman fears the same thing his government does – that Iraq will fall into chaos and fundamentalism.

"It will mean that the whole region will be very fertile soil for fundamentalism," he said. "I think the Americans came to Iraq in order to impose a political project in the region, so they must know that their failure in Iraq will mean the success of Osama bin Laden and his projects."

(Inter Press Service)