Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Boycott Worked, Sunni Clerics Say

Religious body says election had no legitimacy, but many Sunnis seem ready to join subsequent political process.
By Ziyad al-Ujaily

The leading Sunni religious body in Iraq, the Association of Muslim Scholars, has said the January 30 lacked legitimacy because large number of Sunnis followed the clerics’ calls for a boycott.


Although official turnout figures and a region-by-region breakdown have yet to be released, initial reports show that Shia and Kurds came out to vote in large numbers, while fewer Sunnis showed up. An estimated eight million Iraqis participated in the election, implying a turnout of around 60 per cent.


Ahead of the election, the Association of Muslim Scholars called on followers to boycott the polls, saying a vote could not be legitimate as long as there was a foreign troop presence in Iraq.


Many in the Sunni community clearly heeded the call, while others living in the more dangerous parts of Iraq have told IWPR they were unable to vote because they were too scared to go out.


Sunnis make up perhaps 20 per cent of Iraq’s population, but members of the community held positions of power for decades, before and during the rule of Saddam Hussein, himself a Sunni.


In a statement released on February 2, the Muslim scholars said that because so many people refused to take part, a new administration that emerged from it would not have a mandate to draft a constitution. The task of writing the document falls to the 275-member National Assembly.


"We make it clear to the United Nations and the international community that they must not get involved in granting legitimacy to this election, because such a move will open the gates of evil," said the clerics’ statement.


After the election, senior Iraq political figures repeated promises to draw Sunni groups into the decision-making process. Veteran politician Adnan Pachachi, himself a Sunni, said he wanted parties that boycotted the election to be involved in writing the constitution.


It is a view that seems to be shared by many of the Sunnis who chose not to vote.


Sheikh Kamil al-Khalifa, a cleric at the al-Busalam mosque in the southeastern city of Kut, said he had disagreed with holding elections, but he insisted Sunnis will still take part in shaping the future.


“We have had a role in the past, and that role still exists,” he said. “When the new constitution is being drafted, we will have a right to debate it and object to provisions that do not meet the demands of the Iraqi people. We are part of Iraq, so we have the right to reject it [the constitution].”


Sunni cleric Azghir Abbas, also from Kut, did not vote himself, but says he realised that Iraqis really wanted to participate in the elections when he saw the turnout figures and the long queues at the polls.


Abbas said the Sunnis will continue to advocate their agenda, which includes establishing a deadline for the withdrawal of United States-led Coalition troops.


“We need to have a timetable and we will accept nothing less,” he said. “We boycotted the election because we did not get a response to this demand, and we will be able to reject the constitution when it is announced. It is our right.”


Iraqi interim president Ghazi al-Yawar said at a February press conference that US troops were still needed, but there would be a timetable for their withdrawal, although he refused to name a deadline.


“There will be a marked decrease in the number of multinational forces by the end of this year,” said al-Yawar. “A complete withdrawal depends on the strength of Iraqi security and military forces and the eradication of terrorists within Iraq.”


Najm Abdullah, 33, was one of the Kut residents who opted out of the election. But he did observe the big turnout of voters, and he wishes them well.


“Everyone’s got their own opinion, and we are free to hold ours,” he said. “As for us, we are working to have our demands met, and we are not opposing those who voted. Everyone has their own way of getting their demands heard.”


Ziyad al-Ujaily is an IWPR trainee journalist in Iraq.