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Sunni Arabs Determined to Vote

The government denies allegations that it is stepping up military operations so as to keep Sunni voters away from the polls.
By Nasir Kadhim, Jasim al-Sabawi

Sunni Arabs are insisting that they will go to the polls despite concerns that offensives by the United States and Iraqi forces may reduce voter turnout.

As the country prepares for next week's parliamentary polls, Iraqi and US forces have stepped up attacks and arrests in heavily Sunni Arab areas in western and central Iraq.

The US and Iraqi governments have consistently maintained that they are fighting insurgents and not targeting Sunni Arabs, but some leaders of the community assert that the attacks are part of a wider campaign by the Shia-led government to marginalise them politically.

"The government bears a grudge against the Sunnis," said Hamdi Hasoon, chief of the Iraqi Islamic Party in Baquba, the capital of Diyala province.

US and Iraqi troops have recently fought insurgents in Baquba and also in in Anbar province to the west, where they also carried out mass arrests. The Iraqi Islamic Party condemned the operations as "hateful and sectarian".

The Baquba offensive was a "planned operation with the goal of creating obstacles to prevent Sunnis from participating in the elections", insisted Hasoon.

The allegations echo claims made before the January parliamentary elections - Iraq's first following the toppling of Saddam Hussein's government - and the constitutional referendum in October. US and Iraqi forces launched large-scale military operations in Fallujah, a major city west of Baghdad, and Samarrah in central Iraq shortly before the January elections. During the referendum, they continued operations in Ramadi, the volatile capital of Anbar province, and are still battling insurgents there.

Both US and Iraqi officials have repeatedly maintained that they want to stop insurgent attacks and provide security ahead of the elections.

"There are no pre-arranged operations against the Sunnis in any area of Iraq," said an interior ministry source who asked to remain anonymous.

Sunni Arab leaders have more at stake in this election than in the past. Three major Sunni parties - the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Sunni Gathering and the National Dialogue Council - have formed a coalition to contest the December 15 parliamentary vote, after boycotting Iraqi politics since US forces entered Iraq in April 2003. They argued that the new political system marginalised their power.

The political boycott and the military operations in majority Sunni Arab areas reduced voter turnout in these areas in previous polls. It is unclear how the latest military offensives, combined with recent allegations of torture and mass arrests of Sunni Arabs by the interior ministry, could affect the turnout in this election.

What is clear is that this time, Sunni Arabs do want to vote.

"What happened to the Sunnis won't keep them from participating at the polls," said

Al-Hajj Hafith al-Jubouri, the deputy governor of Diyala and a leading member of the Iraqi Islamic Party.

"We will take part in the elections and we will triumph in a way that no one could have expected."

But Abdul-Salam al-Mashhadani, another senior Sunni leader, feared that "these cowardly operations led by the interior and defence ministries will spoil our efforts" to get a high Sunni turnout.

Anbar province had the lowest voter participation in the country - 32 per cent -- during the constitutional referendum, and continued instability there indicates that turnout may once again be weak.

The US military last week held community meetings in Ramadi after conducting attacks and house-to-house searches that left many civilians angry with their presence. A few days later, residents reported that al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch briefly took control of the city and targeted US bases.

People in Ramadi desperately want to take part in the elections, but many say they have little hope that they will be able to go to the polls.

The continued fighting has shut down life in much of the city. Schools and shops have difficulties staying open throughout the day, and civilians - particularly women - rarely venture out of their houses because of the security situation.

"How can the city’s people take part in the election when they haven't even been leaving their houses?" said Abdul-Jabbar al-Janabi, a 24 year-old resident.

Many of Ramadi’s inhabitants have fled to more secure areas like Saqlawiyyah in Fallujah. In 2003, Fallujah became a battleground for insurgents fighting US forces, but security has significantly improved since then and voter participation there was high in the constitutional referendum.

"We left Ramadi because it's become like hell," said 26 year-old Omer al-Duleimi, the owner of a mobile phone shop in Ramadi who has decamped to Fallujah.

"How can we vote? We don't even know where the polling stations are."

Iraqi officials have kept the locations of polling stations in Ramadi a secret so they will not become insurgent targets.

In Tikrit, the home town of Saddam Hussein, many citizens said they are tired of violence perpetrated by both insurgents and the US and Iraqi militaries and are ready to turn to politics. According to Fahran Hawas Sadid, a member of the National Dialogue Council, some people may agree with the resistance, but they are frustrated by unemployment and the military offensives and are now prepared to go to the polls,

"Our people have now began to realise that [the insurgents] are not practicing jihad, and that in fact their actions are subversive and do not support security," said lieutenant colonel Ali Hussein Salah, commander of an army battalion in Hawija. located between Kirkuk and Tikrit.

Farhan Khuzal, a 45-year-old merchant from the town, said constant helicopter surveillance "provokes people daily and affects their level of comfort".

But he added, " people in Hawija are inclined to accept the political situation”.

Nasir Kadhim is an IWPR trainee journalist in Baghdad. Jasim al-Sabawi is an IWPR trainee journalist in Hawija, Salahaddin province.

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