Iraq Election Arrives Amid Tension and Hope

ARBIL, Iraq – Tensions between ethnic and religious groups have been rising in Iraq ahead of the elections Thursday.

The vote wile be the third in less than a year, and the last step in the current process of political transition to a democratic government.

Unlike the Jan. 30 elections this year, Sunni Arabs are expected to turn out in massive numbers for this new round.

According to the figures released by the Electoral Commission of Iraq, about 7,000 candidates from 228 slates will be contesting for the 275 seats in the parliament. The parliament will elect a government for a four-year term.

The four major competing lists are those of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) of the major Shia religious parties, the Kurdistan Alliance List (KAL) of the two major Kurdish parties in the north, the Patriotic Iraqi List (PIL) led by former prime minister Iyad Allawi, and the Iraqi Accord Front (IAF) comprising the three major Sunni Arab parties.

Some divisions have emerged among Sunni leaders over participation in the elections. Despite the determination of Sunni political groups to participate, influential religious organizations such as the Muslim Scholars Association (MSA) have said they will not participate in any elections "held under occupation." But the group stopped short of calling for a boycott.

In another sign of Sunni eagerness to gain as many seats as possible in the new parliament, the insurgent group Jaish al-Islami (Islamic Army) has said voters should not be targeted.

Sunnis have also produced some star candidates. Former Iraqi soccer player Ahmad al-Razi is campaigning on the Sunni list.

Over the past few months, Sunni leaders have accused the Shia-controlled police and army forces of launching indiscriminate arrest campaigns in Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad and in other Sunni cities in the central part of the country.

A few weeks ago, a secret jail was discovered in the Jadiriya neighborhood of Baghdad where more than 100 Sunnis were reportedly tortured by Shia militia groups linked to the party of interior minister Jaber Bayan Solagh. The results of an inquiry into the allegations have been withheld until the election is over.

Shia parties are suspicious of Sunni intentions in participating in the elections. They say Sunnis want to change the constitution, which was approved in a referendum last October.

"There are some people who work for a non-recognition of the constitution and try to change it … we must confront them and not allow any encroachment on the achievements of the Iraqi people," Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of Iraq’s largest Shia party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, said in a statement.

Shias also disagree with Sunnis on a number of other issues such as the eradication of the Sunni-dominated former Ba’ath Party, and over armed resistance by Sunni groups against the Iraqi government and U.S. troops. Shias describe the resistance as "terrorism."

In a surprising development, the Shia religious authority the Marja’ia has refused to support any slate, and has called upon political parties not to use religious symbols on their election posters. This is seen as a sign of Shia Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani’s unhappiness with the conduct of the interim Shia-led government. Sistani had endorsed the UIA in the Jan. 30 election.

Kurdish leaders have said they would prefer not to enter a coalition with Shias, as they had in the interim government.

"We are concerned about that alliance, because they have not honored the protocol signed between us," Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region said in a statement. Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party is one of the main components of the KAL alongside the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by President Jalal Talabani.

"Kurds will enter into alliance with a list that is committed to a federal democratic Iraq and the current status of autonomy in the Kurdistan region," Hemin Mirani from the Kurdistan Institute for Political Issues, a think-tank in the northern city of Arbil, told IPS.

An alternative to the Shias could be Allawi’s list, he said.