Iraqi sheik threatens boycott over ballot purge
Ramadi, Iraq: A prominent sheik and U.S. ally is weighing whether to urge fellow Sunnis to boycott upcoming elections in protest of the government's ballot purge of hundreds of candidates suspected of links to Saddam Hussein's regime.
Such a call by Ahmed Abu Risha risks derailing Obama administration hopes that the March 7 parliamentary elections will bring stronger reconciliation between Iraq's majority Shiites and minority Sunnis who want to reclaim more political power.
It would also set back the clock on Iraqi politics — using the same protest tactic that Sunnis used in 2005 parliament voting that left them with only a few lawmakers and a weakened voice in key debates.
In an interview, Abu Risha acknowledged that a boycott could throw Iraq into disarray. But the Awakening Council leader said the candidate blacklist likely will result in a low turnout among voters in Anbar, the mostly Sunni province that covers most of Iraq's western desert.
"They will not care about the election — they will ignore it, maybe, if these decisions stand," Abu Risha said in an interview this week at his sprawling compound just outside Ramadi, about 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad.
"I will make my decision later about encouraging people to go to vote or not," he added.
Abu Risha leads the Anbar province Awakening Council, a Sunni tribal militia that joined the U.S.-led fight against insurgents in 2006. Anbar was the birthplace of the uprising against al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is seen as a critical turning point of the war.
Iraq's Shiite-led government has banned about 450 candidates with suspected links to Saddam's now-outlawed Baath Party. At stake in the March election is 325 seats and control of Iraq's parliament as the country prepares to stand alone when the U.S. military leaves at the end of 2011.
Iraqi officials say many Shiites also are banned from the ballot, but Abu Risha claimed the vast majority are Sunni — reflecting fears that the blacklist is a government attempt to undercut Sunnis, who once controlled Iraq under Saddam and have felt politically marginalized since his ouster in 2003. U.S. officials say no more than 60 percent of the banned candidates are Sunni.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Sunni Kurd, has asked for a legal ruling on the legitimacy of the panel that is vetting the candidates.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh dismissed the threatened boycott as "futile."
"Many others called for boycotting the previous elections, and this has led to nothing and even losses," al-Dabbagh said. "Boycotting will not help and will not build a national project."
Sunni Arabs widely boycotted the last parliamentary election in January 2005 and now only hold about 75 of the current 275 lawmaker seats. Spurred by insurgent threats against voters and calls from hard-line clerics to skip the polls, many Sunnis shunned the election in protest of U.S. and other foreign troops in Iraq.
Sunnis make up about one-third of the country, U.S. data show.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Nathan Freier, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, called it "critically important" for Iraq's government and security for Sunnis to vote.
Further marginalizing Sunnis could trigger violence by one-time insurgents. In turn, he said, that could lead to a counter-punch by Shiite extremists — bringing back the sectarian bloodshed that once gripped Iraq.
"The Iraqi government has to come to some accommodation with the Sunnis," said Freier, a former adviser to Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.
Nearly 6,600 candidates have been cleared to run in the election. Of the 456 who have been banned, Abu Risha said that seven are members of the Awakening Council he heads. Another 70 are candidates for the Unity Alliance of Iraq political coalition that Abu Risha helps lead along with Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani.
The sheik dismissed claims that the ballot purge targets suspected Baathists.
"I don't think any followers of Saddam Hussein are still in government or are trying to take power. They are sure they will not take power again because the Baath Party is not legal," Abu Risha said.
In a jab at the government, he said Iraqi leaders "believe they have the right to control Iraq and we do not have any right to participate. And when the situation got bad in Iraq, they couldn't even protect themselves. So the American forces protected them."
Abu Risha and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were former allies who planned to form a political coalition last fall until Abu Risha broke off, claiming he was not being treated as an equal partner.
On Saturday, authorities said they arrested Hamoud Jumaa al-Mahelawi, an al-Qaida member who fled in 2006 after Awakening militias took over his town of Qaim, located on the Syrian border in western Anbar. Iraqi security officials have been interrogating al-Mahelawi since capturing him on Wednesday, said an Iraqi police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Al-Mahelawi is accused of killing Iraqi security officials by bombing their homes.