International Herald Tribune
December 27, 2004
By Steven R. Weisman, New York Times
The Bush administration is talking to Iraqi leaders about guaranteeing Sunni Arabs a certain number of ministries or high-level jobs in the future Iraqi government if, as is widely predicted, Sunni candidates fail to do well in Iraq's elections.
An even more radical step, one that a Western diplomat said had been raised already with an aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most revered Shiite cleric, is the possibility of adding some seats to the 275-member legislature for the top Sunni vote-getters, even if they lose to non-Sunni candidates.
The diplomat said even some Shiite politicians who are followers of Sistani are concerned that a victory by Shiites, effectively shutting Sunni Arabs out of power, could alienate Sunnis and lead to more internal strife. Shiites make up about 60 percent of Iraqis and were generally denied power under Saddam Hussein.
The idea of adding seats to the legislature for Sunnis after the election was acknowledged by officials as likely to be difficult to carry out, but they said it might be necessary to avoid Sunni estrangement.
Sunni Arabs make up about 20 percent of the population and formed the core of Saddam's power structure. Kurds make up the other 20 percent. Much of the insurgency is taking place in Sunni-dominated areas in the central part of the country, and some Sunni leaders have called for a boycott of the election. This has led to fears that large numbers of Sunnis will obey the call or be afraid to vote.
"There's some flexibility in approaching this problem," an administration official said. "There's a willingness to play with the end result - not changing the numbers, but maybe guaranteeing that a certain number of seats go to Sunni areas, even if their candidates did not receive a certain percentage of the vote."
The idea is so sensitive that administration officials who spoke about it did not want their names disclosed. Some experts on Iraq say such talk could undercut efforts to drum up support for voting in Sunni areas.
[In Baghdad, an official of Iraq's election body rejected the idea of adjusting the results of next month's vote to benefit the Sunni minority, Reuters reported Sunday. Speaking of "unacceptable" interference, Farid Ayar, a spokesman for the Electoral Commission said: "Who wins, wins. That is the way it is. That is the way it will be in the election."]
Guaranteeing a certain number of positions in government for certain ethnic groups is not without precedent. Lebanon, for example, has a power-sharing arrangement among its main sectarian groups. The Parliament in Iran has seats reserved for religious minorities.
It was not known whether Ayad Allawi, the Iraqi prime minister, had been consulted about the possibility of such action.
Any suggestion of delaying the elections because Sunnis are reluctant to vote has been knocked down by U.S. officials. An administration official said, for example, that when King Abdullah II of Jordan visited President George W. Bush earlier this month, he began the meeting by telling the king not even to raise the issue of postponing the elections because it was beyond consideration. Instead, Bush has pressed Abdullah and the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other countries to spread the word to Sunnis in Iraq to support their candidates and to vote.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and other top U.S. officials have said in the past week that they were generally pleased with indications that an overwhelming majority of Iraqis wanted to vote and that many well-known Sunni leaders were running for office, despite the calls for a boycott by other prominent Sunnis.
But there are also U.S.-made factors hobbling full participation in the election. Administration officials said, for example, that one reason that some Sunnis were not running was that they had refused to sign documents renouncing their former affiliation with the Baath Party of Saddam, as demanded by the Iraqi authorities.
"I've talked to a number of people in the Baath Party, and they bitterly resent having to sign such a document," a Western diplomat in Baghdad said. The diplomat said that the requirement had been an obstacle to an inclusive range of candidates, including figures associated with Saddam who are believed by Western diplomats to be ready to take part in the political process if they do not have to renounce their past ties.
He said Shiite and Kurdish leaders in Iraq had pressed for an outlawing of the old Baath Party since the beginning of the U.S. occupation, when L. Paul Bremer 3rd, the former civilian commander of the occupation, ordered a ban. There is disagreement within the administration about whether this was a mistake that reflected a difficult tradeoff by U.S. policy makers at the beginning of the occupation. But now many officials say they have no choice but to go along with what the interim Iraqi leadership wants.
U.S. officials said many of those leaders opposed any effort to let former Baath Party officials run without renouncing their old affiliation, saying that their stand was analogous to banning the Nazi Party in postwar German elections.
"Given the number of people running for office in Iraq, you have to be impressed with the breadth of Iraqi society represented," the Western diplomat said. "What you don't have running, however, are the old-style Sunni nationalists, the old regime elements who used to dominate the country's politics."
Not everyone sees the idea of altering the results after the election as practical or desirable. "This idea is a nonstarter," said Feisal al-Istrabadi, Iraq's deputy permanent representative at the United Nations. "But what it tells you is that inherently people are concerned about the problems with respect to legitimacy of the elections, not because people are going to boycott, but because people are going to be afraid to vote."
Istrabadi said that, unlike most Iraqi officials in Baghdad, he did not oppose postponing the elections, an idea advocated by some Iraqi politicians and raised by Arab leaders in the region, if a delay could help secure certain areas and persuade people to vote.
He explained that he viewed the idea of adding legislators after the election as having practical and legal difficulties. However, others said that because the plan for a 275-member legislature was put forward by an unelected government, an elected government might be able to do what it wanted.
"You do the math," said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, California, who was an adviser to the U.S. occupation in Baghdad. "If Sunnis don't vote, they could become only 5 percent of the electorate." Iraqis are to choose among 107 slates and 7,000 candidates.
If Sunnis are marginalized in that fashion, Diamond said, it could lead to further alienation, an increased insurgency and possibly a civil war, especially if the Kurdish and Shiite victors attempt to write a constitution that favors their interests over those of the Sunnis.
Copyright © 2004 The International Herald Tribune