Sunni Strategy Shifts Toward Voter Turnout

Despite last-minute maneuvering by Shiite and Kurdish leaders to offer the possibility of further changes in Iraq’s draft constitution, and warnings by foreign jihadists against participation, all indications are that Sunnis will turn out in large numbers Saturday to cast ballots in the country’s referendum.

The very large number of Sunnis expected at the polls contrasts sharply with the highly effective Sunni boycott of January’s parliamentary election. Based on the political origins of the campaign to get out the Sunni vote, however, it appears to reflect Sunni determination to defeat the constitution rather than support for the existing political system.

Although no official figure for Sunni registration is available, a U.S. State Department source says there have been “about a million” new registrants, the vast majority of which are assumed to be Sunnis.

The official U.S. view is that a big Sunni turnout would represent a defeat for the insurgents, who are said to be trying to disrupt the referendum as they did the January elections. State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli suggested to reporters at Thursday’s briefing that “those who are trying to disrupt the process” are “swimming more and more against the tide in Iraq”.

Media coverage of the preparations for the referendum has been based on the assumption that attacks by the insurgents have been aimed at disrupting the vote on the constitution.

In fact, most Sunni insurgent groups appear to be supporting a new Sunni strategy to use the U.S.-sponsored political process wherever possible to gain political leverage with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, without giving up the armed resistance as the ultimate source of leverage toward a more equitable system.

By the time the Aug. 15 deadline for a final draft had passed without agreement, most Sunni negotiators had already concluded that the Shiites and Kurds would not give way on the issue of a decentralized federal system, with most power flowing to Shiite and Kurdish “mini-states”.

As a result, there was broad agreement among most Sunni clerics and politicians as well the leaders of the armed Sunni organizations to take advantage of the provision that the constitution would be defeated if two-thirds of the voters in three provinces voted against it.

In a statement on Aug. 19, reported by the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera news service but ignored by U.S. news media, six Sunni armed groups urged Muslims to register to vote down the draft constitution in order to thwart “the U.S. scheme in Iraq”.

On Aug. 29, the day after the constitutional negotiations ended, a large march took place in the Sunni insurgent stronghold Ramadi, demanding that the government open more voter registration centers.

On the same day, in Tikrit, a protest march carried posters with the Sunni slogan, “No to the Zionist-American-Iranian constitution!” It is unlikely that these marches to rally Sunni voters to vote down the draft constitution would have taken place without the support of local insurgent leaders.

The result was a huge outpouring of Sunni voters registering in the three Sunni-dominated provinces of Anbar, Nineveh and Salahedeen over the very low levels of participation in the January election.

The decision to support the participation by Sunni voters in the referendum to defeat the constitution opened a breach over political strategy between Sunni insurgents and the foreign jihadists aligned with Al Qaeda in Iraq.

A few days before the insurgent groups’ statement calling for a “no” vote, the Al Qaeda organization in Iraq led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had threatened to kill any Muslim cleric who encouraged Iraqis to take part in the referendum.

The U.S. and Iraqi governments hoped for a last-minute agreement that would substantially reduce Sunni opposition to the constitution. But most of the Sunnis who negotiated with the Shiite and Kurdish members of parliament last summer refused to participate in further talks. Only the Iraqi Islamic Party agreed to send representatives.

Despite U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s pleas for more far-reaching concessions to the Sunnis on key issues, the negotiations produced only slight revisions in the text, including a promise to permit renegotiation of certain elements of the constitution after the election of a new parliament in December.

Although the Iraqi Islamic Party has changed its stance from opposition to support of the referendum, it is likely to have little impact on the position of Sunni voters.

The articles of the constitution most vehemently opposed by Sunnis are those providing for decentralization of political power to regions. The draft provides that the management of oil and gas is to be undertaken by “The federal government with the producing governorates and regional governments”.

That means that the Kurdish and Shiite regional governments would share power over those decisions with the federal government.

The distribution of oil and gas revenues are to be proportional to population distribution, but with a proviso that there must be a “set allotment for a set time for the damaged regions that were unjustly deprived by the former regime and he regions that were damaged later on, and in a way that assures balanced development in different areas of the country.”

That language suggests that Kurdistan and the Shiite regional government would get more of those revenues than would be justified by their proportions of the population, as compensation for former president Saddam Hussein’s persecution and military operations against them. The subject is to be regulated by a law, which would be passed by a national assembly dominated by Shiites and Kurds.

Sunnis are holding out for more equitable terms for the management of oil and gas resources and the wealth they generate. Sunni insurgent organizations have also conveyed through intermediaries demands for amnesty and release of all Sunnis detained without charges. They are also certain to seek assurances against the use of Shiite and Kurdish paramilitary units against Sunnis.

The Shiite-led government is unlikely to be willing to meet such demands unless the United States puts far more pressure on the government than it has thus far. U.S. hopes for weakening the insurgency by drawing the Sunnis into the political system are constrained by the present lack of incentive for the government to make the necessary concessions to the Sunnis.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.