January 26, 2004
By Rory McCarthy in Baghdad
An influential Sunni Muslim group in Iraq said yesterday it was opposed to partial elections scheduled for the summer and wanted a vote taken only when American forces had left the country.
The opposition of the newly organised Council for Sunnis in Iraq represents another dilemma for the US-led administration in Baghdad, which is already under pressure to rewrite its political programme in Iraq a second time.
Earlier this month, officials at the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) began to reconsider their idea of regional caucuses to select a new government because of criticism from a powerful Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who demanded democratic direct elections.
At the same time, the authority must balance the mounting frustration of the Sunni community, which although smaller than the Shia, has traditionally formed the ruling class and feels excluded from the political process.
Sabah al-Qaisi, one of the founders of the Sunni council, told the Guardian that his members would not accept any elections organised by the US-led authority. The council, formed last month, is one of the first political groups to have emerged to represent the Sunni community since the Ba'ath party was outlawed last year. It comprises around 160 Sunni clerics, from moderates to extreme Islamists, although it cannot claim to speak for the entire community.
"Trying to push the Sunnis away from their political rights will leave the country in a mess," said Mr Qaisi, a cleric who spent two years and three months in jail under Saddam Hussein for following the hardline Salafi school of Islam.
"We want real, free and decent elections. Elections under occupation are not the correct way to do it. We want the Americans to leave and then we will hold elections."
One of the reasons that the CPA has said it is impractical to hold direct elections in Iraq this summer is the poor security situation. Military commanders say that insurgents are expected to launch attacks to disrupt the process. Polling stations in the Sunni heartland north and west of Baghdad, which has proved the most violent area of Iraq, are likely to be particularly vulnerable.
That might further discourage Sunnis from voting and produce a government even more heavily weighted in favour of the Shias.
"Because of the security situation, I am telling you the elections will not succeed," said Mr Qaisi. "There will not be elections and the Sunnis will not participate in any elections."
US troops raided Mr Qaisi's mosque in Baghdad last month, arresting 32 people and seizing weapons, ammunition and computers. Eight people remain in custody.
The CPA insists that direct elections cannot be held soon because there is no fair electoral roll, no voter registration and no constituency boundaries. Under the current political plan, direct elections for a new government will not be held until the end of next year.
But Ayatollah Sistani's criticisms have forced at least a partial rethink. Similar complaints from the ayatollah last year were partly responsible for the CPA's decision to rewrite its first political programme.
This time the US and British governments have turned to the UN - which has so far been excluded from a political role in Iraq - to broker a compromise. A UN team is expected to be sent into Iraq in the coming days to assess how practical it would be to hold direct elections this summer.
The CPA says the political programme it drew up last November could still be amended. A spokesman, Dan Senor, said at the weekend: "We said from the beginning that it is a framework and we are open to clarification and elaboration on the caucus system."
But the transfer of power to an Iraqi administration on June 30 remains set in stone.
The US election plan
- A 15-member "organising committee" will be set up in each of Iraq's 18 governorates.
- Five of the members will be chosen by the US-appointed Iraqi governing council, five by the provincial council and five by the local councils of the governorate's five largest cities.
- The organising committee will then select a "caucus" of community leaders such as politicians, councillors, academics, professionals, clerics and tribal elders. In order to be selected, each member must be approved by 11 of the 15 members on the committee.
- By May 31 each caucus must elect people to represent the governorate in the transitional assembly.
- The number of representatives will depend on the population of each individual governorate.
- The transitional assembly will then elect an executive branch to run the country and a cabinet of ministers.
- On June 30 the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority will dissolve itself and give power to the new Iraqi government.
- By March 15 2005, direct elections will be held for a convention which will write a new constitution.
- The constitution is then approved by a referendum.
- By December 31 2005, direct elections will be held for a new Iraqi government.
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