IRAQ: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Shi'ite win in Iraq elections vindicates US role
, February 26, 2005
The success of Shi'ite candidates in Iraq's first democratic general election will pose a new test for the country, and vindicates the role of the Bush Administration in pushing ahead with the ballot despite daily car-bombings by Sunni insurgents.
The party of the pro-American interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, failed to win a large share of the vote, securing just 14 per cent.
About 60 per cent of Iraq's 25 million people are Shi'ite Arabs, 35 per cent are Sunni Arabs and Kurds, and the balance are members of other faiths and nationalities.
The Shi'ites, who were persecuted by the secular regime of Saddam Hussein, voted overwhelmingly for the slate of candidates, from various parties, put forward by the Shi'ite religious leaders.
The Sunnis, who filled the administration in Saddam's regime, largely boycotted the election, and have only minor representation in the new 275-member National Assembly that will write a new constitution.Voter turnout
A turnout of 8.5 million voters - 59 per cent of the 14.2 million eligible voters, according to official figures - reflected both wartime conditions and the Sunni boycott. In contrast, 80 per cent voted in the recent election in Afghanistan.
The religious Shi'ite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) will hold about 130 seats (47 per cent) in the National Assembly; an ethnic Kurdish list took 70 seats (about 26 per cent); while the party of the secular Shi'ite Iyad Allawi came a distant third, with 38 seats (about 14 per cent).
A key player in Iraq after the election will be Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shi'ite cleric.
Al-Sistani, aged 75, was born in Iran, but is not subordinate to Iran's Grand Ayatollah. He condemned the insurgency, and urged Shi'ites to vote in the recent elections as "a religious duty".
Under the terms of the interim constitution, the National Assembly will draft a permanent constitution, prepare for general elections at the end of the year, and elect a presidential cabinet to select the prime minister.
The Assembly will also write the new constitution, which will require two-thirds of the vote. The Shi'ite religious alliance is well short of this number.
A two-thirds majority of the Assembly chooses the President and two Vice-Presidents, which will push the Shi'ites to form a coalition with other political groups.
With increased influence in the government, the Shi'ites are expected to push the new government to take tougher measures against the Sunni insurgents who have been targeting the Shi'ites and Kurds with car bombs and assassinations.
Iraq's economy is dominated by the oil sector, which has traditionally provided about 95 per cent of foreign exchange earnings. These have been the target of repeated attacks over the past year, as Sunni insurgents try to disrupt the economic life of the country.
Apart from the differences between the religious Shi'ites, who have much in common with neighbouring Iran, and the Sunnis, the Kurdish minority in northern Iraq has its own particular agenda.
The Kurds, long persecuted in Iraq and neighbouring Turkey for demanding a Kurdish state, have operated with a large measure of autonomy since the First Gulf War in 1991. The Kurds are understood to want to incorporate Kirkuk, the key northern city, into the Kurdish area, although this is opposed by the Shi'ites.
The Kurds are deeply suspicious of both the Sunnis and Shi'ites, and are expected to form an alliance with Iyad Allawi, comprising around 40 per cent of the National Assembly.
It is possible that the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) will fragment, as it consists of many separate parties.
Whether the interim Government is able to control the insurgency will depend on the effectiveness of the Iraqi police and army, which have been completely rebuilt by the Americans since Saddam was overthrown in 2003.
The Americans insisted that no one linked to the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein would have any position of responsibility in the new Iraq, a decision which caused fierce resentment among the Sunnis, and helped fuel the insurgency. It also meant that for over a year, Iraq had neither police nor an army, giving the insurgents a free hand.
Over the past two years, however, a new army and police force have gradually begun to emerge. Today, there are 54,000 Iraqi police, trained by American and European instructors, with a civilian curriculum and funding. More than 20,000 of them have been trained at the Iraqi Police Training Academy in Jordan.
These were the people who protected over 5,000 polling places, and ensured that elections were held in an environment almost completely free of violence and intimidation.
Whether the police and military forces are sufficiently well-established to withstand the constant attacks by well-armed insurgents, only time will tell.