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    Middle East
     Mar 2, 2010
Suspicions swell as Iraq elections near
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - The Iraqi government is printing 26 million ballots for the March 7 elections, nearly 35% more than are needed for all eligible voters. Several contesting parties are crying foul play, claiming that the extra 7 million ballots will be used for fraudulent purposes.

That argument is being trumpeted by the Iraqi National List of ex-prime minister Iyad Allawi. The Sadrist bloc accuses Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of arresting its followers in the week ahead of the elections to prevent them from voting for anti-Maliki 

candidates. Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr claim that in the past few days the government has arrested about 40 Sadrists in Basra and 20 in al-Kout.

According to the Iraqi National Alliance, the prime minister is abusing his powers and distributing government land and plantations freely to tribal leaders to secure their votes. This comes only days after a candidate announced, through the Saudi TV channel al-Arabiya, that Maliki is distributing expensive guns to those who visited him in the days preceding the elections, with a gold emblem that reads, "Gift of the Prime Minister."

Supporters of ex-prime minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari claim that 800,000 fabricated names have been registered in government polls to grant them a vote on March 7, arguing that these names belong either to people who are dead or who never existed in the first place, all charged with voting for the prime minister and his State of Law Coalition. Reportedly, these 800,000 fake names have been registered to vote either in Baghdad or in rural districts where there is no proper monitoring authority.

Although senior clerics had earlier pledged not to meddle in internal politics, they have recently reneged on this, putting full weight behind their respective constituencies. The only person to hold by his neutral position is the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who in 2005 put his full weight behind the Iran-backed United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) although he believes that top clerics should restrict their activities to spiritual guidance and not get immersed in the dirty game of day-to-day politics.

He has now declared that he will not be receiving any politician at his office prior to March 7 and has banned everybody from using his image in campaign posters. He called on his followers "to maintain strict neutrality towards political parties". Other senior clerics were not as politically correct.

Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, for example, came out with a vicious criticism of Maliki, accusing him and his team of negligence and corruption. Najafi said, "There are people in the executive authority who have betrayed the country, who have stolen public money or created sectarianism in the country, like Education Minister Khudair al-Khuzai [a Maliki protege running for parliament on the same list as the prime minister]." Ayatollah Kazem al-Hairi, who was appointed by the late Mohammad Baqir al-Sadr to indoctrinate disciples in the 1990s, also spoke out loud last week, calling on Shi'ites loyal to Muqtada to "vote and prevent tyrants from returning to power".

The elections will lead to the creation of the second full-term parliament since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. It will also be the first parliament in the post-George W Bush era, voted into office with plenty of Saudi and Iranian meddling but very little US influence.

In 2005, things were very different as Sunnis boycotted the election process, objecting to the occupation of Iraq and the downfall of the Saddam regime. As a result, the parliament that was elected was packed with pro-Iran politicians from the UIA. The Sunnis took up arms in 2005-2006, leading to an insurgency against the occupation, which was headed on one front by former Ba'athists and on the other by tribal leaders reportedly close to Saudi Arabia, struggling to combat Iranian influence in Iraq.

By 2007, they reached a conclusion that arms alone would not liberate Iraq from the Americans, nor would they regain their days in the sun as legitimate rulers in Baghdad. Some, headed by the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni group, accepted government office under Maliki, trying to push for reforms for the Sunni community from within the political system.

Among other things, they demanded a greater say in government affairs, greater representation and more powers in the Maliki cabinet, a general amnesty setting political prisoners free and amendment of the de-Ba'athification laws that were passed by the US in 2003.

When none of these demands were met, the Front walked out on the Maliki cabinet in the summer of 2007. Glad to see the end of them, the prime minister went ahead and cemented his alliance with Shi'ite parties such as the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and the Sadrist bloc, as well as Kurdish groups, including one headed by President Jalal Talabani.

Sunni politicians once again realized the folly of their action, calling on their followers to vote - in large numbers - in the provincial elections of January 2009. Even in hotbeds of the Sunni insurgency like Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, the Sunnis cast their ballots, bringing their representatives to Iraqi municipalities by power of the ballot. They are determined to repeat this in March, despite the systematic disqualifications that have rocked Iraqi society in recent weeks, preventing hundreds of Sunnis from standing as candidates.

Last week, Sunni heavyweight Saleh Mutlak formally announced that more than 70 candidates from his list would not be running, protesting his disqualification by the government. Fearing an explosion on the Sunni street, Maliki made a smart move on Friday, announcing the reinstatement of 20,000 former army officers who had been dismissed from service by the invasion of 2003. All of them are Sunnis, at the rank of colonel and below, and all have been leading a miserable life in unemployment and persecution by the post-Saddam order, although none have been convicted of any crime, except membership in the army.

The move aims to appease them through a respectable government job and a stable salary, hoping that if anything this will ward off accusations on the Sunni street that Maliki is nothing but a sectarian premier, bent on sidelining and destroying the Sunni community.

The effects of such a surprising pardon - which some claim comes too little, too late - are yet to be felt on the Iraqi street. Many doubt it will affect the results on March 7, given the mountain of accusations that have been fired at the government, such as sectarianism, favoritism and failure to bring security or stability to Iraq.

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

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