As Iraq moves on with vote, Falluja trapped by sins of past
Sunni minority alleges mistreatment by Shi’ite majority
FALLUJA, Iraq, May 13, (RTRS): Braving a nationwide driving ban, hundreds of Iraqis walked through Falluja and stepped over barbed wire surrounding a school to vote in a parliamentary election they hope will help a city far from recovering from years of conflict and upheaval.
For them the election is not merely the first since the Islamic State militants who seized their city four years ago were defeated. Falluja’s suffering is multi-layered.
It is also the first vote since US troops who invaded Iraq in 2003 and pulverised much of their city in an offensive against insurgents left the country in 2011.
But casting a ballot for a parliament that will choose a prime minister presented its own challenges.
At least 80 voters in the Falluja Model Middle School for Boys, which was recently rebuilt after being levelled to the ground by US-led coalition air strikes on Islamic State militants, were told they could not vote because they had the wrong type of voting cards, poll workers said.
Technical issues resulting from the introduction of a new electronic voting system soured the election in Falluja.
Some had incorrect information on their cards, or were directed to the wrong polling station.
Despite evidence to the contrary, many believe that the obstacles were put up to prevent Falluja’s Sunni population from voting, underscoring the sectarian tensions Iraq still grapples with 15 years after a US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.
Iraq’s minority Sunnis dominated Iraq under his rule. Shi’ites have run the country since his demise.
If Iraqis do not heal their deep rifts, the country which suffered from a sectarian civil war in 2006-2007, could spiral into more violence.
“The machines are not working. Many cards are rejected. This was done on purpose. For obvious reasons, for reasons you know very well,” said Ibrahim Suliman, the school’s principal who was acting as assistant station manager on Saturday.
Sunnis have long complained about rampant discrimination at the hands of the Shi’ite-led government, though some concede there have been improvements under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Falluja was the first city captured by Islamic State in Iraq, in January 2014, and a bastion of the anti-US insurgency.
It is the most populous city in Anbar, the overwhelmingly Sunni western province that borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Rubble litters every street in Falluja. It was once known as the city of mosques, but much of the city was levelled and it is far from recovery.
Shi’ite militias man checkpoints inside and around the city, subjecting its Sunnis to what they allege is ritual humiliation.
“Sunnis are treated as third class citizens in Iraq. I can’t go to Baghdad at night,” said Abdul Salam al-Anzi, referring to what he said was mistreatment faced by Sunnis at checkpoints.
Speaking outside a polling station in Falluja, Anzi said he had voted for a candidate because he came from the same tribe, illustrating the factionalism that often undermines attempts at unity.
He, like many Sunnis, believe it is better if Abadi wins a second term rather than his challengers. Abadi’s predecessor Nuri al-Maliki who was accused of pursuing a sectarian agenda while in office.
The third contender, Hadi al-Amiri heads the Badr Organisation which helped defeat Islamic State. His close ties to Shi’ite Iran has made many Sunnis resentful.
Like all voters Reuters spoke to on Saturday, however, Anzi was not convinced enough to vote for Abadi’s list, the first in Iraq’s history to run in all 18 provinces.
Civil servant Saddam Jabber had a candidate he enthusiastically supported, but was unable to vote for him because of technical issues.