Standing in line outside a Falluja polling station on December 15, 2005, a man named Qays spoke the words that the White House had been waiting to hear since the preceding January 30. “We Sunnis made a mistake in the last elections, and the people are suffering for that mistake. Even the armed groups know that.” The mass abstention of Sunni Arabs from the January 30 elections, some heeding the calls of communal leaders for a boycott and others fearing the death threats of insurgents, left them under-represented in the transitional national assembly and, ultimately, marginal to the process of drafting the new Iraqi constitution that passed a national referendum on October 15. “Bringing the Sunnis back in” was the foremost goal of US diplomacy in Iraq in 2005.
The underlying assumption was, and remains, that Sunni Arabs’ participation in formal politics will ameliorate their feelings of exclusion from post-Saddam Iraq, weakening the insurgency and paving the way for a gradual exit of US troops from the country, sooner rather than later.
As in the October 15 referendum, Sunni Arabs turned out in large numbers to cast ballots in December’s elections for Iraq’s first full-term parliament since the demise of the old regime. The heavily Sunni Arab province of Salah al-Din north of Baghdad reported a turnout of 88.3 percent — the highest total in the country. In the predominantly Sunni Arab province of Anbar, where Falluja sits along the Euphrates River, people voted at a rate of 55 percent — the lowest in the country, but still a quantum leap from the 2 percent figure of January.
But election-day interviews in Falluja, along with subsequent events, undercut the notion that Sunni Arab participation in the contests will necessarily translate into acceptance of the government. The opposite may be true. Fallujans largely voted to express their rejection of the transitional government, dominated by the United Iraqi Alliance of Shi‘i religious parties and the twin Kurdish parties, and to underscore the rejection of the constitution by 97 percent of Anbar voters in October. More importantly, the December elections have so far left Fallujans’ political grievances unaddressed, widening rather than narrowing the rift that separates them and other opponents of the post-Saddam political order from other Iraqis. The rift, while its root causes are political, is increasingly sectarian in cast and hostile in tone.
Like many others at Falluja polling stations, Qays was deeply upset about revelations of severe abuse of detainees inside the Jadiriyya prison run by the Iraqi Interior Ministry, whose head, Bayan Jabr Solagh, is a former high-ranking official in the Badr Brigades militia of the Shi‘i Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). On December 13, US Ambassador to Iraq zalmay Khalilzad confirmed at a press conference that over 100 detainees, most of them Sunni Arabs, were physically abused in Jadiriyya and another clandestine Interior Ministry jail. The maltreatment, Khalilzad said, was “far worse than [the] slapping around” admitted to by an Interior Ministry spokesman. Qays’s cousin Hamid told Middle East Report that he was held in Jadiriyya for a month, beaten and tortured with electricity. Hamid says he was arrested simply for being a Sunni from Falluja traveling in Baghdad with a large amount of cash.
As Qays complained, “It is not fair. Even criminals have their rights; they shouldn’t torture them. They’ve taken many of my friends from their houses without a warrant, and then they torture them. If their families can pay, they let them go.” For all the hatred that Fallujans have for the US military following the two Marine invasions, Qays added, they like the nascent Iraqi security forces even less. “Many people, if they’re arrested by Americans, their families feel relieved because they know they will not torture them. They know that things have changed in Abu Ghraib. If they’re arrested by the [Iraqi] National Guard, it is a disaster.” Such allegations of systematic malfeasance by the Iraqi security forces, made up mostly of Shi‘i Arab recruits and infiltrated by former Badr militiamen, are common in Sunni Arab towns and neighborhoods. Qays was voting, he said, to put someone else in command of the National Guard.
The US also hopes the reins of the security forces will change hands. On the day of the elections, Khalilzad pleaded in a Washington Post op-ed that the new interior minister “be trusted by all communities and not come from elements of the population that have militias.” Bayan Jabr Solagh has said he would like another portfolio, but the Shi‘i religious parties are well-positioned to retain this post in the new cabinet after their huge victory in the elections.
According to the certified results that were finally announced on February 10, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), of which SCIRI is a member, won 58 percent of the vote in Baghdad along with crushing majorities in nine majority-Shi‘i southern provinces and a significant minority in the communally diverse province of Diyala along the Iranian border. The UIA has 128 of the 275 seats in the new legislature, just shy of a majority but enough to retain the job of prime minister and the prerogative to form the new government. The options for coalition building are four: a two-way deal with the Kurdish parties such as was struck after the January 2005 elections; a pact with the Iraqi Accord Front (Tawafuq) led by Sunni Arab Adnan al-Dulaymi and mostly composed of Sunni Islamists; and a “national unity” government comprised of the UIA, the Kurdish parties and either Tawafuq or the Iraqi National List of Iyad Allawi.
The US had high hopes for the ex-Baathist former interim prime minister, but he emerged from the elections a loser, with only 8 percent of the vote nationwide. Kurdish leaders express a preference for a government including Allawi, but the UIA continues to reject this idea. Building a coalition with Sunni Islamist parties will also be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.
Dulaymi, along with other Sunni Arab and secular nationalist politicians, immediately cried foul at the preliminary results when they began trickling in on December 19. Pointing to the size of the UIA vote in Baghdad, which he claimed was disproportionate to the number of Shiites in the city, he alleged “forgery and falsification” and pledged to block formation of a government unless fresh elections were held. At a meeting convened on December 21, Tawafuq and another major Sunni Arab bloc, the Iraqi National Dialogue Front of ex-Baathist Salih al-Mutlaq, joined Allawi’s list in issuing another call for a rerun of the elections under a new, UN-appointed electoral commission. The group of “rejectionists” called itself 35, for the number of parties that joined. A week after the elections, they organized some of the largest Sunni Arab street protests since the invasion, pouring out of mosques in Baghdad, Mosul, Tikrit and Samarra’ after Friday prayers.
There was some independent evidence that allegations of fraud were worth looking into. A report from Iraq Without violence (IWV), a network of Iraqi non-governmental organizations and civil society groups, recorded 472 incidents of violence to persons or property in the weeks leading up to and during the December balloting. Insurgent attacks tapered off markedly from previous electoral exercises, according to the report, but 43 of the 472 incidents involved “Iraqi state agents” who “allegedly committed violence in support of a political entity.” IWV included in its definition of violence everything from shootings of candidates and campaign workers to vandalism of campaign posters. In northern, central and southern provinces alike, the IWV report noted, voter intimidation was “a key aspect of inter-party conflict.” However, “what the data presented fails to capture is whether incidents of violence and intimidation actually influenced how voters voted.”
At the official level, certification of the election results was delayed while the electoral commission investigated 20 complaints of irregularities classified as “red” — serious enough to affect the outcome in the province where they were reported. The UIA, for its part, labeled the accusations of fraud as nothing but sour grapes. In the words of Jawad al-Maliki, a spokesman for the Da‘wa Party headed by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari: “Democracy means accepting the opinion of the majority.” During the protests of fraud, Western diplomats in Baghdad were careful not to sound alarm bells. But one diplomat predicted that the Sunni Arabs would not be satisfied by any result. “This is a learning experience,” he said. “They need to learn how big their base is.” Once they do, he still hoped they would become more “pragmatic.” “How can they best protect their interests? Is it better to be inside the system? Or to be outside talking to al-Jazeera?”
Two months later, the new government still unformed, Khalilzad penned another op-ed, in the February 12 Los Angeles Times, acknowledging the difficulty of the US objective of a “national unity” government. “Yet this is a moment of opportunity,” he continued. “Thanks in part to systematic outreach efforts by the United States, Sunnis have undergone a sea change in attitude about participating in post-Hussein governance, culminating in their massive turnout in the December elections.” Somewhat plaintively, Khalilzad repeated his frequent injunction that ministers, especially those with security portfolios, be selected for competence rather than communal allegiance. “Sunni Arab rejectionists are joining the
process of building a new and democratic Iraq,” he insisted. The article’s claims are hard to square with the intensified inter-communal distrust in Iraq following a spate of sectarian
killings and allegations of still more SCIRI-run “police raids” on Sunni mosques and homes. Sunni Arab leaders have pressed their case against the security forces with increasing fervor.
“We have red lines against some figures who have harmed our people,” vowed Iraqi Islamic Party head Tariq al-Hashimi, a member of Tawafuq, on January 23. In a reference to SCIRI figures, he went on: “We will not allow anyone who participated in human rights violations to take any ministerial posts.” The next day, the party issued a statement dubbing the security forces “wolves” and “criminal gangs,” and urging citizens to use “any suitable means” in self-defense. Finally, on February 1, al-Hashimi threatened civil disobedience throughout Iraq unless the US and the Iraqi government satisfied a lengthy list of conditions, including the dismissal of Bayan Jabr, the disbanding of militias, the release of all prisoners at jails run by the Iraqi government and publication of the findings of the investigation into the Jadiriyya incidents.
With 128 seats and, ultimately, US backing, the UIA has neither inclination nor incentive to give up the Interior Ministry as Khalilzad and Sunni Arab parties demand. “We have red lines that cannot be crossed in regard to electoral weight and the interest of national security,” Hadi al-Amiri, head of the Badr Brigades, told the Associated Press on January 29. “We will never surrender these. We are subjected to a daily slaughter. We will not relinquish security portfolios.” Nor have UIA politicians — especially SCIRI representatives — expressed willingness to alter the substance of the constitution in the talks that are supposed to convene.
The three-year history of zero-sum communal politics in post-Saddam Iraq militates against the US hope that Sunni Arab participation in elections will lead to national unity and heal the country’s wounds. If anything, each voting exercise since the fall of the old regime has served to highlight the depth and sharpness of the communal divisions, and thrown fuel on the flames of a low-grade civil war with a still murky cast of antagonists.
In December, the atmosphere in Anbar was such that Sunni Arab politicians felt they had better come home from Baghdad having delivered on their constituents’ demands or not come home at all. Only weeks before the elections, Falluja’s most prominent cleric, Hamza ‘Abbas, was gunned down. On February 7, Kamal Nazzal, another cleric who was head of the city council and a candidate in the elections, was also shot dead. Both had cooperated extensively with US forces in Anbar.
Outside the Falluja polling station on election day, a supporter of Salih al-Mutlaq named Firas predicted that “resistance” (muqawama) would continue alongside the seating of the new parliament and negotiations over the new government. He claimed that armed struggle had already “caused the Democratic Party in America to call for the withdrawal of American troops.” At the Palestine school elsewhere in town, Abu Haydar, an election official, agreed, adding that the guerrillas allowed the elections to proceed unmolested only because they knew Iraqis would soon see that democracy is a farce.
Muhammad Farhan, a chemical engineer from Saqlawiyya west of Falluja, paused to vent his frustrations after being frisked by Iraqi troops. “Saddam was the president of Iraq for 30 years, and today he is on trial for killing 140 people in Dujail. And today we killed many, many people [in Falluja]. Who is responsible for that? You know what happened in Jadiriyya prison. Every day, many people were killed. Who is responsible?”
Back at the school, Fawzi Muhammad, then deputy director of reconstruction for Falluja and now heir of Nazzal’s job on the city council, complained that Anbar should have more than the nine seats it has been allotted in the national assembly. He was hopeful that the voting would ease the plight of the war-ravaged city. “It depends on the shape of the new government…. We hope that it will be politically balanced — then things will go better. If not, the fighting will continue.” At press time, there was no new Iraqi government, but for the people of Anbar, and Sunni Arabs across Iraq, the mid-February renomination of Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister was not exactly a harbinger of change.