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    Middle East
     Feb 19, 2010
Allawi flirts with Iraq's elections
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - There is rising concern in Iraq over the parliamentary elections scheduled for March 7, with two main options now on the table.

One option is for the polls to take place amid widespread Sunni resentment - and a boycott similar to the one of 2005. That would lead to an overwhelming victory for Iran-backed politicians like Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, ex-premier Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Adel Abdul Mehdi of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC).

Another scenario is that the elections will be called off altogether, due to rising violence and Sunni resentment with Maliki's handling of the pre-election process. The controversy of disqualifying candidates, which has rocked the Iraqi scene for more than three


weeks, is ongoing as 145 candidates are now officially confirmed as ineligible to run for office, due to their alleged ties to the outlawed Ba'ath Party.

Originally, the number of disqualified candidates stood at over 500, mainly Sunnis and seculars, but that has been slashed to 145. One man, however, remains on the blacklist: Saleh al-Mutlak, the heavyweight chief of the Iraqi National Dialogue Front, which has 11 members in the outgoing parliament.

Not only does the rejection of Mutlak's candidacy shed serious doubt about the election results, given his heavyweight status as a Sunni statesman, it also aims to bring down another secular - ex-prime minister Iyad Allawi, who is running with Mutlak on a joint list called the Iraqi Nationalist Movement Coalition (al-Iraqiya), a cross-sectarian outfit aimed at restoring secularism to Iraq.

Allawi has announced that he will be suspending his election campaign on Sunday in protest against the disqualification of Mutlak, who, like him, is a former member of the Ba'ath Party.

If Allawi pulls out, it will be good news for the prime minister and his allies, as a major challenger will have been removed.

Top Sunni statesmen like Vice President Tarek al-Hashemi, leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party, are also part of Allawi's coalition and in protest they, too, might not stand.

The disqualified politicians are crying foul play, accusing Maliki of wanting to return to one-party rule and claiming that he has transformed into a despot, arresting and persecuting anyone who is not supportive of his State of Law Coalition.

Allawi, who has never seen Maliki as a real statesman, will appeal to parliament to intervene and halt the disqualifications. The ex-prime minister, who has eyed the premiership since 2006, is furious with the series of attacks in recent weeks that have targeted his allies, blaming them on the central government in Baghdad.

One bomb went off in north Baghdad, near Mutlak's office headquarters, an area under the supposedly watchful eye of the pro-Maliki Ministry of Interior. Another bomb was thrown into the garden of a building in al-Mansour in west Baghdad that is used by Sunni scholars who are supportive of Mutlak and Hashemi. A third struck the headquarters of Allawi's Iraqi National List. A few days ago, a member of the Iraqi National List who planned to stand as a candidate in March was murdered in Mosul.

Coinciding with the attacks was a statement by Omar al-Baghdadi of al-Qaeda, threatening to sabotage the elections if they led to a victory of Iran-backed candidates like Maliki, maintaining the status quo of 2005-2010. According to a statement by the terrorist group, "Sunni participation in this election will certainly lead to the establishment of the principle that Sunnis in Iraq are a minority who have to be ruled by the rejectionists [in reference to Shi'ites]." It added, "We have decided to prevent these elections by all legitimate means possible; primarily, military means."

For very different reasons, radical groups like al-Qaeda and secular ones like the Iraqi National List are furious with the regime of Maliki. Both, however, want to prevent a Shi'ite-packed parliament from emerging in Baghdad.

Allawi wants to restore a fiery brand of secularism and Arab nationalism to Iraq. For the past five years, seculars have been the weaker link, unable to stand up to the sectarian giant that dominated the Iraqi street.

When civil war was ripe, due to a terrorist attack on a revered Shi'ite shrine in a mixed Sunni-Shi'ite city in February 2006, ordinary Iraqis turned to men with arms for protection. These militias happened to be religiously driven, believed to be on the payroll of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Seculars like Allawi, who had no arms at their disposal, became increasingly unattractive to ordinary Iraqis as they preached a program that steered clear of religious overtones. Maliki and his team had the state at their disposal, along with plenty of funds, and came from religiously driven political parties like al-Dawa and SIIC and were fully backed by Tehran.

Five years down the road, those who betted on Maliki realize that despite his strength and rosy promises, he has been unable to deliver security or stability to Iraq. The massive bombings in August, October and December 2009 are testimony to the fact that the prime minister and his turbaned allies have drastically failed as nation-builders.

They have also cornered Iraq into isolation, distancing the country from traditional Arab friends like Syria, Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab Gulf. They frown on a political elite running Baghdad, especially one that strives for an Iran-style theocracy. This bolstered Allawi's popularity as ordinary Iraqis lost faith in a state built on sectarian affiliations.

For years, Maliki's team claimed that Allawi and Mutlak posed no real threat to their political existence, claiming that the Iraqi street - the Shi'ite part of it at least - remained rallied behind their leaders.

At one point, because of the relative calm brought to Iraq in 2007-2008, Maliki even began to attract supporters from the Sunni street. Briefly in early 2009, Maliki began to preach an agenda that was non-sectarian, promising Iraqis during provincial elections they would get better pay, better security, cheaper hospitals, finer education and more foreign direct investment to rescue the collapsing economy.

The support that Maliki obtained from both Sunnis and Shi'ites in January 2009 crumbled later that summer when over 100 Iraqis from all sects were killed in six attacks that ripped through Baghdad. Ordinary Iraqis from all religious groups have since started searching for credible alternatives, finding promise in Allawi and Mutlak.

Nobody realized this change better than Maliki and his allies, which explains the systematic state-sponsored disqualifications that began early this year.

Sami Moubayed is editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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