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Mar 9, 2010

Sunnis turn out to demand voice in Iraqi politics

RAMADI, Iraq, March 9 (Reuters) – Privileged under Saddam Hussein and relegated to the political wilderness after his fall, many Sunni Arabs voted in Sunday’s parliamentary poll.

In Sunni heartlands like Anbar province, where U.S. forces faced a bloody insurgency, anger against Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government seemed palpable.

"There are no services and no jobs. We live in poverty. What are they waiting for? To see us beg to stay alive?" asked Kamel Farhan, 66, who lost two sons in a drive-by shooting by insurgents a few years ago and himself bears bullet scars.

"If there is no change, blood will reach the knee. Killings and violence will return to this province," he declared, sitting in a relative’s shop in the provincial capital of Ramadi.

Minority Sunnis alienated by the U.S.-led invasion spurned the first election for an interim assembly in January 2005. They did not boycott the second, held in December the same year for a full parliament, but still felt shut out of political power.

This time Sunni voters expect a tangible reward.

Turnout in Anbar, a vast swathe of desert stretching from Baghdad to the Syrian, Jordanian and Saudi borders, was a solid 61 percent, only just below the 62 percent national average.

That figure was matched or bettered in other Sunni-majority provinces, according to Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission. Sixty-six percent voted in Nineveh, 62 percent in Diyala and 73 percent in Salahuddin, home to Saddam’s clan.

Security in Anbar has improved dramatically since tribal leaders helped turn the tide of war by aligning Sunni fighters with U.S.-backed Iraqi forces against al Qaeda from 2006 on.


Most Anbar voters seemed to support either Ahmed Abu Risha, one of those tribal sheikhs, or former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite leading a cross-sectarian list.

"Allawi is the best. He is another Saddam but without the moustache," said Turki Hamad, sitting with friends who applauded his words — reflecting popular admiration in this frontier province for leaders in the mould of Iraq’s ousted strongman.

Competitive democracy is new to Iraq, where Saddam won a 2002 referendum on his leadership with 100 percent of the vote.

Sunnis were not immune from Saddam’s iron fist, but did not experience the systematic oppression suffered by restive Kurds and majority Shi’ites who gained power after his overthrow.

That tormented history sowed the seeds of the sectarian slaughter that nearly ripped Iraq apart in 2006-07.

People in Anbar, like many in Iraq, are reluctant to admit that any Sunni-Shi’ite rancour persists, but blame sectarian strife on Islamist parties swept into office in both Baghdad and Anbar in previous post-invasion votes many Sunnis shunned.

Now Sunnis are determined to make their votes count. Many see secular electoral lists with strong Sunni components as the best means of regaining a fairer share of government.

Unofficial returns from some ballot stations in Ramadi and Falluja showed Allawi performing well. In the voting station in Abu Risha’s home village, Allawi got 750 votes against 1,200 for Abu Risha, while Maliki’s State of Law coalition took only 129.

"This government didn’t benefit us, so I didn’t vote for it," said Salih Abed, a Ramadi property broker, holding up a purple ink-stained finger to show he had cast his ballot.

"We, all of our tribe, decided to vote for a certain list to make change. We don’t want to split our votes."

Abed had plunged his whole finger, not just the tip, into the ink.

"This to show that I voted from the bottom of my heart."

Abu Risha, the tribal sheikh running on a list with Shi’ite Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, celebrated what he expected to be his election victory in style.

Dressed in an Arab headdress and a shiny blue dishdasha robe, he entertained supporters at his palace by firing 20 rounds in the air from a rifle held in one hand, Saddam-style.

"We won," he shouted. "And this is to mark our triumph." (Additional reporting by Fadhel al-Badrani in Falluja; Editing by Jim Loney and Alistair Lyon)

Mar 5, 2010

Iraqi leaders wind up election campaign

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi politicians made their final appeals to voters on Friday before a parliamentary election that al Qaeda-linked militants threatened to derail through violence.

Few expect a clear winner to emerge from Sunday’s vote, which will shape Iraq’s turbulent politics as U.S. forces who toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 with their allies prepare to depart.

Mar 4, 2010

Iraq’s Sunni voters yearn for change

AWJA, Iraq (Reuters) – The head of Saddam Hussein’s tribe hesitates to talk about the ousted Sunni dictator, wary of angry reactions. But what can he do to shake the association with a man who brutally repressed Iraq’s new Shi’ite leaders?

“Saddam was a member of this tribe and he always will be,” Munaf Ali al-Nida said in an interview in his mansion overlooking the Tigris river, as a deeply divided country headed toward a national election this Sunday.

Feb 23, 2010

Iraq VP says no chance of return to civil war

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Reconciliation between Iraq’s once dominant Sunnis and its Shi’ite majority has failed at a political level but the country will not slide back into sectarian conflict, Iraq’s Sunni vice-president said.

The parliamentary election on March 7 is seen as a potential make-or-break moment for Iraq’s progress out of the shadow of war and sectarian slaughter which nearly tore the country apart after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Feb 20, 2010

Senior Sunni lawmaker’s party to boycott Iraq vote

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A prominent Sunni Muslim politician banned from running in Iraq’s parliamentary vote next month has withdrawn his party from the ballot, a spokesman said on Saturday, calling on others to join the boycott.

Iraq’s once-dominant minority Sunnis largely shunned the national vote in 2005, fuelling a bloody insurgency that U.S. and Iraqi officials hope Sunni participation in the coming election will help end.

Feb 17, 2010

Iraq to seize security contractors’ heavy weapons

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq will seize heavy weapons from foreign security firms and expel within days ex-Blackwater contractors still in the country, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani said on Wednesday.

The decision follows Iraqi government outrage at the dismissal by a U.S. court of charges against Blackwater Worldwide guards accused of killing 14 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad in 2007.

Jan 21, 2010

Iraqi presidency seeks court decision on Baath ban

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq’s presidency council has asked a court to rule on the legitimacy of a panel that banned scores of candidates from the March election because of links to Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, the president said on Thursday.

President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, played down the significance of the move by a Shi’ite-led independent committee, saying the resulting furor, including alarm among minority Sunnis who dominated Iraq under Saddam, was overblown.

Jan 12, 2010

Iraq president urges lifting lawmakers’ immunity

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has urged parliament to lift the immunity from prosecution of some lawmakers for lauding the Saddam Hussein era, saying they were harming the political process ahead of March elections.

The reemergence of heated debate over the Baath party, which ruled Iraq from the late 1960s until 2003 and was dominated by Saddam’s fellow Sunni Arab minority, is roiling Iraqi politics less than two months before the parliamentary election.

Jan 7, 2010

Iraq, Iran start talks on disputed border area

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran and Iraq have begun talks to try to resolve a dispute over an inactive oil well in a sensitive area along the nearly 1,500-km border between the two countries, their foreign ministers said on Thursday.

Iraq’s Hoshiyar Zebari met Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki in a move to cool tensions between the neighbors after a small contingent of Iranian troops moved into an oilfield inside Iraqi territory last month and Iraq vowed it would not give up an inch of its land.

Jan 5, 2010

Iraq says militant leader linked to hostages freed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq has released a Shi’ite militant leader, an Interior Ministry official said on Tuesday, raising hopes that the last of five British hostages captured in Baghdad more than 2-1/2 years ago would be returned.

But several sources familiar with Khazali’s Shi’ite militant group denied he had been released and British officials believe the last remaining hostage, Alan McMenemy, is now dead.