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Iraqi elections, in the shadow of death

BAGHDAD - An Islamic group going under the name Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Monotheism and Holy War) claims to have beheaded a second American hostage in its custody, with threats to kill a British hostage unless female Iraqi detainees are freed.

The group, which earlier beheaded Eugene Armstrong, has now killed Jack Hensley and has threatened to behead Kenneth Bigley unless female prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Umm Qasr prisons are freed.

"The lions of Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad have slaughtered the second US hostage after the deadline ended [for their demands] and we will soon show the video of his execution," claimed the group, which is linked to Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is associated with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The United States has posted a US$25 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Zarqawi. Iraqi leaders and the US accuse the 37-year-old of being behind the assassination of Iraqi Governing Council leader Ezzedine Salim and the beheading of US citizen Nicholas Berg.

The latest decapitation comes as violence has already claimed more than 300 lives in Iraq in September, especially in Sunni areas west of Baghdad and in the Shi'ite districts of the capital.

Meanwhile, US marines in Najaf have arrested two close aides of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The motives for the arrests remain unclear. Assad Swari, a spokesman for Muqtada in Baghdad's al-Kharkh district, says the cleric's followers have nothing to do with the kidnappings and beheadings. Swari told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that Muqtada strongly condemned the slaying of innocent civilians: "Muqtada says that we will never accept under any circumstances whatsoever hostage-taking operations. We reject it as a whole. And if we reject all of this, do you expect us to accept beheadings and mutilation of hostages?"

In another development, two members of the influential Association of Muslim Scholars - Sheikh Mohammad Jadoa al-Janabi and Sheikh Hazem al-Zeidi - were killed during the past week in a mostly Shi'ite district of Baghdad. The organization, a powerful Sunni Muslim group, has served as a mediator to hostage disputes. Analysts say the killings could help fuel sectarian violence in Iraq, which is believed to be at risk of civil war.

But Swari insisted that Muqtada had absolutely nothing to do with the killing of the Sunni scholars: "There was a statement issued by Muqtada al-Sadr's office condemning this act, and we have nothing to do with this criminal atrocity [killing Sunni clerics]." Swari blamed the killing on "mysterious forces", such as foreign intelligence services and extremists. He said both groups want to see a civil war in Iraq. But Muqtada's spokesman said the country's majority Shi'ite population would never fight with what he calls their Sunni brothers.

Election blues
Meanwhile, reports Peyman Pejman of Inter Press Service (IPS), Iraqi leaders and officials are becoming increasingly jittery over the now partial elections proposed for January.

The government of US-appointed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has said, with US and British backing, that elections will be held as planned even if people in areas under rebel control do not vote. That is a growing number. The chairman of the US Central Command, General John Abizaid, said this month that more areas are now under the control of unknown armed groups than there were last year. These areas now spread from the north near Mosul to cities such as Fallujah and Ramada, Sadr City in Baghdad, and down to places in the south.

The reaction to proposals that elections may not be held in all of Iraq has been mixed. Some Iraqi and international human-rights groups say they are not happy with the decision, but can understand it as long as the government does not claim the elections are fair.

"If you are going to have elections, our concern is that those elections be held in a manner that is free and fair," Joe Stork, acting director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, told IPS. "Questions about the overall fairness will legitimately be raised if they were going to go ahead in circumstances where you had whole towns, whole cities, whole communities who effectively could not participate," he said. Stork said one possibility might be to postpone and not cancel elections in areas such as Ramada and Fallujah.

Hussain Sinjari from the Iraq Institute for Democracy in Baghdad says the government is doing its best. "We are not living in an ideal place where the circumstances are 100% suitable for holding elections," he told IPS. "I think we should hold the elections according to the realities on the ground. If there is a governorate or a town like Fallujah where there is violence, we can exclude the place from elections."

The controversy extends beyond exclusion of some areas. Abdel Aziz Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an influential Shi'ite group, says the entire mechanism is flawed because what is called the Independent Elections Commission has too much power vested in it by an illegal authority. "Do you find something resembling this anywhere in the world?" Hakim asked at a recent gathering in Baghdad. "Being appointed by the occupation power, and give them these powers, and we are starting elections and democracy?"

The administrator of the former Coalition Provisional Authority, L Paul Bremer, signed an order before the CPA was dissolved in June to establish a commission to write election laws and prepare the ground for holding elections. Commission officials say politicians like Hakim are either misinformed or they are being deceitful.

Bremer issued the law but "this commission is the first [electoral] experience in the history of Iraq", said commission spokesman Farid Ayar. "This commission is an Iraqi commission, independent, and it works to bring a very new and democratic election in Iraq." The appointment of the commissioners came through the United Nations, he added.

UN officials in Baghdad confirm that the CPA had little to do with choosing the commissioners. They say UN elections advisers selected a panel of international judges to sift through more than a thousand applications to serve on the commission. The judges eventually interviewed fewer than 20. Eight were selected. The commission has hired about 500 employees but is likely to need thousands more.

Those employees need to be trained, but UN officials say little time is left for that. Some can be trained outside Iraq but that cannot be done for everyone, they say. Hakim is concerned that one of the responsibilities of the Election Commission is to write laws on the qualifications of the candidates. "These few selected people have jurisdiction over issues that affect not just this election but the future of Iraq," Hakim told the gathering.

Commission officials acknowledge such concerns, and say the Iraqi government can negotiate those powers with the UN if enough politicians raise the issue. The commission is meanwhile racing against time to pass seemingly insurmountable obstacles such as preparing an electoral list and determining how many Iraqis inside and outside the country can vote. Ayar says the commission wants to finish that task by the end of this month. Others are not so optimistic.


Sep 23, 2004

Allawi barking up the wrong tree
(Sep 22, '04)

Deadly twist in hostage-taking
(Sep 22, '04)

Bush, Marshal Foch and Iran
(Sep 21, '04)


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