Fears as Iraq elec­tions near

The Kansas City Star (Sunday) - - IRAQ UPDATE | - By RE­BECCA SAN­TANA

Vote un­der­lines ten­sions that show ri­val­ries, which fu­eled war, are still largely un­re­solved.

Iraq is a week away from par­lia­men­tary elec­tions that were sup­posed to show­case a peace­ful democ­racy poised to stand on its own feet af­ter U.S. forces go home.

While there have been suc­cesses, the vote also un­der­lines the deep eth­nic and sec­tar­ian ten­sions that are putting the coun­try’s fu­ture in the bal­ance — sec­u­lar or Is­lamic, pro-Iran or pro-West.

Ten­sions lead­ing up to next Sun­day’s bal­lot­ing, only the sec­ond for a full, four-year par­lia­men­tary term since the U.S.led in­va­sion in 2003, show that de­spite more than 4,300 Amer­i­can deaths and tens of thou­sands of Iraqi deaths, the eth­nic and re­li­gious ri­val­ries that fu­eled the war re­main largely un­re­solved.

If the elec­tion pro­duces a gov­ern­ment that can bring rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama can de­clare suc­cess and com­fort­ably with­draw all Amer­i­can forces by the end of next year.

How­ever, if the elec­tion leads to greater in­sta­bil­ity, it will tar­nish the lega­cies of Obama and his pre­de­ces­sor, Ge­orge W. Bush, cast­ing fur­ther doubt over the wis­dom of a war that was launched on flawed in­tel­li­gence that Sad­dam Hus­sein held weapons of mass de­struc­tion in vi­o­la­tion of U.N. or­ders.

The coun­try has seen progress since the dark days of the in­sur­gency — ex­plo­sions and the num­ber of bodies at the morgue are fewer, and peo­ple move freely around the cities. Those are sig­nif­i­cant steps for a coun­try where peo­ple were once ter­ri­fied to leave their homes and fled the coun­try by the hun­dreds of thou­sands.

But the elec­tion runup sug­gests the core is­sues that drove vi­o­lence — power-shar­ing among the ri­val mi­nor­ity Sun­nis, ma­jor­ity Shi­ites and the Kurds — re­main un­re­solved and may be sharp­en­ing. That raises grave ques­tions about what will hap­pen when U.S. troops leave.

The U.S., which cur­rently has a lit­tle less than 100,000 troops in the coun­try, plans to with­draw all com­bat troops by the end of Au­gust and the re­main­ing forces by 2012.

With over 6,200 candidates com­pet­ing, no one is ex­pect­ing a straight­for­ward out­come with the quick seat­ing of a new gov­ern­ment. It is un­likely that any sin­gle group will win an out­right ma­jor­ity of seats in the 325-mem­ber par­lia­ment, which may mean weeks or months of po­lit­i­cal ma­neu­ver­ing to form a rul­ing coali­tion.

It has been dur­ing th­ese pe­ri­ods of in­sta­bil­ity that vi­o­lence has spiked in Iraq, so all eyes will be watch­ing for a peace­ful tran­si­tion of power.

The choices are stark. Iraq’s 18.9 mil­lion reg­is­tered vot­ers — es­pe­cially Sun­nis who ruled un­der Hus­sein and were the back­bone of the in­sur­gency — will de­cide whether the coun­try throws its sup­port be­hind a re­li­gious, Shi­ite-led gov­ern­ment with close ties to neigh­bor­ing Iran that would be likely un­der the Iraqi Na­tional Alli- ance. The al­liance in­cludes fol­low­ers of the anti-Amer­i­can cleric Muq­tada al-Sadr and the Ira­nian-backed Supreme Is­lamic Iraqi Coun­cil.

Or does Iraq go with the coali­tion led by for­mer prime min­is­ter Ayad Allawi, a sec­u­lar Shi­ite who has ap­peal among Sun­nis and Shi­ites.

Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki’s State of Law coali­tion is some­where in the mid­dle. A com­pro­mise choice in 2006, alMa­liki has sur­vived and even thrived, try­ing to por­tray him­self as a na­tion­al­ist can­di­date who can cross sec­tar­ian lines and se­cure the coun­try.

But his se­cu­rity cre­den­tials have been tar­nished by a se­ries of bomb­ings that tar­geted gov­ern­ment build­ings and other build­ings in Bagh­dad. In re­sponse, he has raised sec­tar­ian ten­sions by re­peat­edly blam­ing mem­bers of Hus­sein’s rul­ing Baath Party for the at­tacks, sug­gest­ing they were linked to alQaida in Iraq.

Adding to the un­pre­dictabil­ity, vot­ers won’t be get­ting any sug­ges­tions from Iraq’s top Shi­ite cleric.

The Grand Ay­a­tol­lah Ali alSis­tani, who is highly revered by Iraq’s ma­jor­ity Shi­ites, has tried to re­main above the po­lit­i­cal fray and has only en­cour­aged a big elec­tion turnout. Also, the Ira­nian-born cleric has or­dered his rep­re­sen­ta­tives across the coun­try not to cam­paign for any blocs or candidates.

ALAA AL-MAR­JANI | THE AP

A sup­porter of Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Ma­liki was at an elec­tion rally Satur­day in Na­jaf. Par­lia­men­tary elec­tions are next Sun­day.

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