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

Sunnis Followed Their Leaders

Participation of Sunni parties in the election was key to their community’s huge turnout in the Iraqi election.
By IWPR staff
Sunni Arabs who turned out in force to vote in the nationwide election said they were fed up with the situation in Iraq and were ready to take a stab at post-Baathist Iraqi politics.

Some prominent Sunni Arab leaders headed up coalitions that addressed their community’s grievances, giving its members the chance to vote for lists that represented their interests and identities. Many Sunni Arabs oppose the US-led occupation and Shia-dominated government.

"I have a feeling that a new Iraq is being born," said Omar Azeez Ahmed, a 32-year-old engineer from the predominantly Sunni Arab al-Azamiyah neighbourhood in Baghdad, who voted for the leading Sunni Arab coalition, the Iraqi Accord Front.

Election officials and political analysts expected a higher Sunni Arab turnout in the December 15 poll than during the January parliamentary elections and the October referendum, which Sunni Arabs largely boycotted. Nevertheless, many election monitors and officials were surprised to find large numbers of Sunni Arab voters streaming into the polls.

Polling stations ran out of ballots in Ramadi and other areas of the volatile western province of Anbar, as well as many Sunni Arab neighbourhoods in Baghdad, forcing the Independent Electoral Commission in Iraq to extend voting by an hour. In Fallujah, polling centre officials said some citizens were not able to vote because of a lack of ballots.

In some Sunni Arab neighbourhoods of Baghdad, voters lined up to cast their ballots before voting booths opened at 7 am. Women ululated and threw sweets in the air at one polling centre.

The air of celebration resembled the atmosphere during the January polls, when citizens voted for their first government following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. But few Sunni Arabs participated then, believing they would be sidelined politically.

"I swear by Allah, we are having a feast and a party," said Samiyah Abed Mahmood, a 58-year-old Baghdad resident. "I hope that the coalition we voted for, the [Iraqi] Accord Front, brings back security and can release the prisoners."

Many Sunni Arabs expressed frustration with the current government, dominated by the Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance, which many accuse of close ties with Iran and randomly arresting, imprisoning and torturing Sunni Arabs.

The most surprising electoral turnaround was in Anbar province, which opened 154 polling stations - including 58 in the turbulent capital, Ramadi - and voter turnout was as high as 90 per cent, according to Saad Abdul-Azeez, the electoral commission's Anbar director.

As in many Sunni Arab regions, the Iraqi Accord Front appeared to garner the most support in Ramadi. They oppose both the US occupation forces and al-Qaeda networks that have tried to take over the province.

The Front is made up of three key Sunni Arab parties - the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Sunni Gathering and the National Dialogue Council - that promised to end the presence of foreign troops in Iraq, improve security and represent their community in parliament. Party officials estimated they captured 80 to 90 per cent of votes in key Anbar cities such as Ramadi, Fallujah and Haditha.

Turnout was low in the early morning in Ramadi but picked up as voters realised it was safe to go to the polls. One bomb was diffused in front a polling centre, and a militant group exchanged gunfire with a local force protecting the centre, reported a security coordinator for the electoral commission in Anbar who asked not to be named.

But the day passed without any serious incidents of violence - an unusual phenomenon since insurgents and US forces began battling in this war-wracked city in September. The province has been under martial law, and the government announced it would extend its 7-10 pm curfew in Ramadi until January 10, 2006.

Polling centres were protected by local residents armed by the Iraqi government. At noon, voters began streaming in to vote, although women were largely missing.

"People from these areas don't allow women to go [to the polls] because of conservative religious and tribal attitudes," said Naji Uwaid, a university professor.

But the concern seemed to centre just as much around security as traditions. Women voters in the afternoon lined up with men in long queues to cast their ballots.

Fadil Said, 52, carried food as he headed toward a polling station.

"We will provide [poll workers] with meals so that those we elect will tomorrow feed us with safety, freedom and liberation from the occupation," he said.

The National Dialogue Council, led by the prominent Sunni Arab leader Salih al-Mutlak, also seemed to do well at the polls in Sunni Arab areas. There was some support too for former prime minister Ayad Allawi's Iraqi National list, which was running on a secular platform promoting national unity that attracted many middle-class secular Iraqis.

"My husband wouldn't let me vote for Allawi. He forced me to vote for 618", the National Accordance Front, said Nada Yasin, a 38-year-old housewife in Mosul in northeastern Iraq. "He told me, 'If you vote for Allawi, then you have to go to Allawi's instead of coming home.'"

Usam Mohammed Hussein, an independent political analyst from Baghdad said he expected more political power for Sunni Arabs would change the shape of politics.

"I expect that the main blocs will reorganise in the next Iraqi parliament thanks to huge participation among Sunni Arabs, in Baghdad in particular," he said.

IWPR trainee journalists Zaineb Naji and Daud Salman in Baghdad, Yasin al-Dilaimi in Ramadi and Waad Ibrahim in Mosul contributed to this report.

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