Fri, Dec 03, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Tensions showing in Iraq election run-up

INSTABILITY Although the US has its hopes pinned on a transfer to democratic rule via the vote, the election is widening ethnic divisions and leading to more violence

AP , Iraq

The bearded man in a white robe spoke politely but his parting words to Mohammed Abdullah, a grocer entrusted with distributing voter registration forms, carried a thinly veiled threat.

"Let the fear of God reside in your heart," the man, who never identified himself, repeated twice to Abdullah before leaving. He had earlier tried to convince Abdullah that participating in Iraq's January election violates Islamic law.

The Jan. 30 election is a key step in Iraq's transition to democracy. But the run-up is proving just how difficult that process will be. Already, the election has widened sectarian divides, triggered an increase in military operations and produced a campaign of intimidation.

At issue is whether Iraq can emerge from its deepening crisis as the Arab world's beacon of freedom and tolerance -- as some US officials predicted before the invasion in March last year -- or plunge deeper into chaos and violence.

Ghazi al-Yawer, Iraq's interim president and a Sunni Arab, said Wednesday he supported calls for the election to be held on time, but also dwelt on the difficulties involved.

"There are areas in Iraq where the security situation is very bad. There are areas where no one has been able to give out even one voter registration sheet. What we care about more than holding elections is the result of these elections," he told a news conference.

In a bid to allow voting to take place in areas under insurgent control, US forces and their Iraqi allies have launched a series of offensives to rout guerrillas in Sunni areas like Fallujah, west of Baghdad, the northern city of Mosul and areas just south of the capital.

The operations have deeply offended many Sunnis and as a result, the nationwide process of verifying voters' rolls has failed to get off the ground in some areas.

In Mosul, for example, insurgents last month torched a warehouse that contained election registration papers. There have also been reports of widespread intimidation targeting Iraqis involved in the electoral process.

The effects of the election on widening the sectarian divisions between the Shiite majority and the long-dominant Sunni minority is potentially dangerous. The long-oppressed Shiite majority -- about 60 percent of the population -- is eager to capture the lion's share of political power.

While Sunni clerics threaten an election boycott and Sunni politicians call for the election to be delayed, their Shiite counterparts have insisted the ballot be held on time and have told Shiite congregations that failing to vote would be sinful.

As the election draws closer, Sunni-Shiite violence appears to be on the rise too.

Shiite travelers are being targeted by Sunni militants stalking a road south of Baghdad and leading to Shiite holy cities. Several Sunni clerics have been killed in recent weeks and scores of Iraqi National Guardsmen, many of them Shiites or Kurds, have been killed.

Iraq's Kurdish minority which, like the Sunni Arabs, comprise about 20 percent of Iraq's estimated 26 million people, joined Sunni politicians in calling for the vote to be delayed.

But once it became clear that there would be no postponement, it was business as usual for the Kurds and, on Wednesday, one of their two main leaders announced his own electoral plans.

"We, as Kurds, will submit one unified, independent list for elections in Iraq," Massoud Barazani of the Kurdish Democratic Party said. "Since the Shiites have a special list to contest the general election, the Kurds also will have their own list for the election."

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