Sunnis Opt for Ballots – and Bullets

Leading Sunni clerics and insurgent organizations are unofficially encouraging voting by Sunnis in Thursday’s parliamentary elections for a slate of candidates who are calling for a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal.

The decision to support participation in the election is the latest step in an evolving Sunni strategy that now combines armed struggle, participation in electoral politics, and negotiations for a peace settlement – all aimed at ending the occupation and gaining bargaining leverage for Sunnis in post-Saddam Hussein politics.

The policy in favor of Sunni participation in the election has been facilitated by an agreement worked out between armed militants and the slate of Sunni candidates running under the banner of the "Iraqi Accord Coalition." Those candidates are pledging to call for a timetable for foreign troop withdrawal and to oppose the "federal" provisions of the constitution once they are elected to parliament.

Neither the main Sunni resistance organizations nor the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), which claims to represent 3,000 Sunni mosques countrywide, has made a public statement clearly announcing such a decision.

An AMS statement on Dec. 7 indicated that the organization would not participate in the elections in order to avoid giving "legitimacy" to the occupation, but did not call for a popular Sunni boycott of the elections, unlike AMS statements prior to the January elections and the October referendum.

However, Sunni preacher Ali al-Zindi of the Umm al-Qura mosque in Baghdad said last Friday that participation in the election is "a religious duty," calling the election "a decisive battle that will determine our future."

That statement can be taken as a reflection of the views of the AMS as well as of major resistance organizations The cleric who presides over the Umm al-Qura mosque, Harith al-Dhari, is the general secretary of the AMS. He is considered by U.S. intelligence to have close ties with major insurgent organizations. Several insurgent groups have reportedly met regularly with Sunni clerics at that mosque.

Although six insurgent organizations joined in a statement in mid-August calling for Sunnis to vote down the constitution in the October referendum, no such statement by those groups has been reported in advance of the coming parliamentary election.

But the London Daily Telegraph reports that insurgents in Anbar province led by former Ba’athist officers will protect polling places and that they have warned al-Qaeda against attacks on voters. A "senior commander" of the Army of Mohammed, which encouraged participation in the referendum, told Time magazine last week, "This is a two-track war – bullets and the ballot. They are not mutually exclusive."

By encouraging participation in the vote, Sunni leaders can hope to pick up 50 seats out of a total 275, compared with 17 in the current parliament. Statements by Sunni clerics indicate, however, that the Sunni insurgents and the AMS believe that what is most important is to have strong anti-occupation figures in those seats.

The preacher at the Umm al-Qura mosque said, "If you give your vote to the wrong people, then the U.S. occupation will continue and the country could be lost."

The new Sunni strategy appears to be the result of negotiations involving the AMS, the insurgent groups, and the three Sunni organizations that had opted to run a slate of candidates in the wake of the adoption of the constitution on Oct. 25.

The AMS and some other militant Sunni leaders were initially negative about Sunni participation in the election. Whereas the three organizations fielding a Sunni slate defended the new constitution, the AMS attacked it as benefiting only "the occupiers and those who collaborate with them." The AMS also denounced the entire process and said it would not "take part in any political process."

But after discussions with other Sunni leaders, the organizers of the "Iraqi Accord Coalition" have now abandoned their earlier defense of the constitution’s provisions for a federal system and have adopted the slogan "Vote for Iraq’s Unity." That slogan now hangs on the wall of the Abu Hanifa Mosque, considered the holiest Sunni shrine in the country.

The Sunni slate is also pledged to lead a push within parliament to demand a timetable for withdrawal. That was enough to soften the initial hard line of AMS and armed organizations toward the vote.

Last June, 82 members of the Iraqi parliament, including members of the ruling United Iraqi Alliance, joined in a letter to the speaker calling for withdrawal of foreign forces, but the letter did not call for a timetable.

Supporting participation in parliament is not without its downside for Sunni leaders. They don’t want Sunni voters to get the idea that the resistance organizations are accepting the legitimacy of the U.S.-sponsored political system and, indirectly, of the occupation.

The AMS stance of non-participation appears to be aimed at counteracting that effect by reminding Sunnis that the primary issue is to obtain a timetable for complete withdrawal of occupation forces.

(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.