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After vote, Iraqi Sunnis at crossroads - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Kurdish civilians stand beside scores of coffins that hold the remains of some 500 Iraqi Kurds from the Barzani tribe. The human remains were brought from a mass grave discovered in al-Muthanna province in southern Iraq (AFP)

Kurdish civilians stand beside scores of coffins that hold the remains of some 500 Iraqi Kurds from the Barzani tribe. The human remains were brought from a mass grave discovered in al-Muthanna province in southern Iraq (AFP)

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 &#34Yes&#34 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.

&#34They want to destroy the real result,&#34 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. &#34This is why they need five days just to count the ballot papers.&#34

&#34If it is proven this referendum was rigged I”m sure the security situation will get worse,&#34 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 &#34Yes&#34 in Saturday”s referendum and would seek amendments peacefully in the next parliament.

&#34We expect the constitution to be ratified and this is not the issue,&#34 said Fakhri al-Qaisi of the National Dialogue.

&#34Now 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.&#34

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 &#34Yes&#34 majority, ratification hinges on the &#34No&#34 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: &#34They”re waiting for what”s happening in Mosul,&#34 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 &#34No&#34 vote in Sunni areas.

But he added: &#34If 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.&#34

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.

&#34This 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,&#34 he said.

&#34It 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,&#34 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 &#34terrorists&#34 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:

&#34What is the point of this at the end of the day if they”re going to fix the result?&#34 he said, warning of mass protests.

POLITICAL PLAYERS

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan conceded the referendum highlighted division rather than national solidarity: &#34We had hoped that the constitutional process would have been… totally inclusive, and pull together all the Iraqis…

&#34Obviously, 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?

&#34I don”t think we can legitimately expect that. But at least, they have chosen to use ballots and not bullets.&#34

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.

&#34They”ve turned themselves into political players,&#34 he said.

&#34It shows a political posture in addition to a violent one.

&#34The (December) elections are more important to them … The option of violence is not going to work,&#34 Hilterman said. &#34I don”t think they ever thought they could defeat this constitution.&#34

Of whether U.S.-backed talks on amending the constitution would succeed, he said: &#34Much will depend on the the U.S. government in brokering some agreement. And on the Shi”ites in being willing to make concessions.&#34

Iraq's President Talabani and Kurdish leader Barzani attend a ceremony honoring bodies of Kurdish people killed during former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's rule, found in a mass grave at the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia (REUTERS)

Iraq’s President Talabani and Kurdish leader Barzani attend a ceremony honoring bodies of Kurdish people killed during former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s rule, found in a mass grave at the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia (REUTERS)

An Iraqi Kurd cries as she holds the portrait of her husband during a ceremony for the remains of some 500 Iraqi Kurds from the Barzani tribe in Arbil, northern Iraq, 17 October 2005 (AFP)

An Iraqi Kurd cries as she holds the portrait of her husband during a ceremony for the remains of some 500 Iraqi Kurds from the Barzani tribe in Arbil, northern Iraq, 17 October 2005 (AFP)

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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