BAGHDAD,(Reuters) – With less than three weeks to go before elections for a new parliament, Iraq”s Sunni Muslim minority, once strong under Saddam Hussein, is doing everything it can to make sure it gets its tactics right.
In the last election in January, when a 10-month interim government was chosen, Sunni Arabs, who make up about a fifth of the population, either supported their leaders” call for a boycott or were too frightened by insurgent threats to vote.
The result was a disaster for the community.
Sunnis, who formed the backbone of the ruling classes under Saddam and for decades before that, were left with just a handful of seats — 17 — in the 275-member parliament.
By population, they might have expected to get 50 or more.
The poor showing left them with scant representation on the committee that drafted a new constitution, a document that ended up favouring the Shi”ite- and Kurdish-led government and was approved in a referendum last month.
The charter grants the Shi”ites and Kurds effective autonomy in northern and southern Iraq, where the country”s oil wealth lies, leaving Sunnis in the centre with no access to petroleum resources.
Analysts say the frustration that caused in turn fuelled the insurgency, which is largely led by Sunni Arabs, either loyalists to Saddam or former members of his Baath party.
The next election on Dec. 15 carries more weight than January”s poll, since the government it produces will have a four-year mandate, and Sunni political leaders are determined to ensure they do not make the same mistake again.
"They see it as a challenge…they want to prove themselves," said Jaber Habib, a professor of politics at Baghdad University. "Sunnis will take part widely in this election. They want to prove their weight."
Iraq”s Electoral Commission says registration is up in Sunni Arab areas since January”s poll, and that was evident in October”s constitutional referendum, when Sunnis voted in large numbers, narrowly failing to defeat the charter.
While many more Sunnis are expected to turn out on Dec. 15, and they will probably have more representation in the next parliament, the community is still divided.
There are at least three major Sunni lists registered to run in the poll, including an Islamist, anti-occupation group called the Iraqi Accordance Front, a more secular, pro-insurgency alliance known as the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, and a grouping that is both secular and opposed to the insurgency.
The variety and the different directions they are pulling in may split the Sunni vote.
"Running in different lists could affect the weight of the Sunni vote, it”s true," says Abdul Hadi al-Zubaidi, a member of the Iraqi Accordance Front.
"But it is almost impossible to get all votes for one list, and what matters is that Sunnis are aware of the challenge and that they will rise up and vote."
Others say the variety is a sign of strength in that Sunnis are not running on sectarian lines, but on issues. It is the Shi”ites and Kurds, they say, who have built ethnic and sectarian blocs.
"It is a vote for Iraq, not for sects," said Salih al-Mutlak, the head of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue.
"We want a national Iraq, not a sectarian one."
Either way, analysts say it probably will not matter. After the results are in, they expect Sunnis lists to unite as one block anyway in an effort to give the community clout.
"Sunnis will form alliances later, it doesn”t matter if they are on different lists now," said Baghdad University”s Habib.
"Even though they do not have a united leadership, they are all determined to make up for their absence at the last elections…Before, Shi”ites and Kurds proved their presence, now it is the Sunnis” turn."