BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraq”s disaffected Sunni Arab minority finds itself at a crossroads of sorts after taking part in large numbers for the first time in a free election.
Tempting the Sunnis further towards politics and away from revolt will take skilful bargaining by other Iraqi leaders — and U.S. diplomats trying to stifle a budding civil war.
The likely "Yes" result in Saturday”s constitutional referendum may prompt an upsurge in violence; but the vote has also forged a Sunni political movement that, for the first time, will fight its corner in a parliamentary election in December.
Some in Saddam Hussein”s once dominant community complained on Monday that indications the new constitution looked set to be ratified were proof of electoral fraud, abetted by the United States, and warned of a new wave of insurgent military action.
"They want to destroy the real result," said Hussein al-Falluji, a Sunni politician who took part in the negotiations on the constitution and rejected the final draft forced through by the Shi”ite- and Kurdish-dominated parliament. "This is why they need five days just to count the ballot papers."
"If it is proven this referendum was rigged I”m sure the security situation will get worse," Falluji told Reuters.
But, as Saddam prepares to stand trial on Wednesday for crimes against humanity, other Sunni nationalist leaders said they would accept Iraqis had said "Yes" in Saturday”s referendum and would seek amendments peacefully in the next parliament.
"We expect the constitution to be ratified and this is not the issue," said Fakhri al-Qaisi of the National Dialogue.
"Now we are concentrating on the next election because I believe a real presence for the nationalist forces in the next parliament will restore balance and serve the Iraqi people."
BALLOTS AND BULLETS
There may be elements of a deliberate twin-track approach — violence and politics — to secure concessions for the 20 percent minority; but U.S. officials, trying to extract their troops from Iraq while leaving behind some sort of stability, are encouraged by the Sunnis” new participation in politics.
With partial results showing an overall "Yes" majority, ratification hinges on the "No" camp not having a two-thirds majority in three of Iraq”s 18 provinces. Two Sunni provinces appear to have produced such a vote but in a third, around Mosul, it has fallen short, senior officials said.
Sunni Arabs have cried foul: "They”re waiting for what”s happening in Mosul," said a militant nationalist in northern Iraq who claims to speak for underground insurgent leaders.
The rebels, he said, had coordinated a general ceasefire which accounted for the relative absence of violence on polling day and was designed to ensure a big "No" vote in Sunni areas.
But he added: "If the government manipulates things in Mosul and lets the constitution pass the next thing will be general strikes, demonstrations and an increase in military operations."
Toby Dodge of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London said that showed some insurgents, if not the radical Islamist fringe, tacitly backed the political process.
"This is incredibly important as it means that those deploying violence are doing so for political reasons and can be brought into the process by clever diplomacy," he said.
"It is the responsibility of those in the Green Zone (government compound), especially the U.S. ambassador, to make the most of this window of opportunity," he said.
Some Sunni political leaders have offered to mediate in direct talks between the Americans and insurgents. Washington insists it will not bargain with "terrorists" but has conceded that U.S. officials have had contact with militant groups.
Falluji said disillusion with Saturday”s process could mean Sunnis repeating in December their boycott of January”s election which left them sidelined when the constitution was negotiated:
"What is the point of this at the end of the day if they”re going to fix the result?" he said, warning of mass protests.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan conceded the referendum highlighted division rather than national solidarity: "We had hoped that the constitutional process would have been… totally inclusive, and pull together all the Iraqis…
"Obviously, that did not happen and has not happened. So it is very difficult to say what happens after the votes are counted… Would the violence cease after this process?
"I don”t think we can legitimately expect that. But at least, they have chosen to use ballots and not bullets."
Joost Hilterman of the International Crisis Group think-tank in Amman said political and military strategy were probably running in parallel for some Sunni leaders, but the high turnout in many Sunni areas showed politics was now important to them.
"They”ve turned themselves into political players," he said.
"It shows a political posture in addition to a violent one.
"The (December) elections are more important to them … The option of violence is not going to work," Hilterman said. "I don”t think they ever thought they could defeat this constitution."
Of whether U.S.-backed talks on amending the constitution would succeed, he said: "Much will depend on the the U.S. government in brokering some agreement. And on the Shi”ites in being willing to make concessions."