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Sunni Cleric Mulling Call to Fellow Muslims to Boycott Polls over Baath Ban

A prominent sheikh and U.S. ally is weighing whether to urge fellow Sunnis to boycott upcoming elections in protest of the government's ballot purge of hundreds of candidates suspected of links to Saddam Hussein's regime. Such a call by Ahmed Abu Risha risks derailing Obama administration hopes that the March 7 parliamentary elections will bring stronger reconciliation between Iraq's majority Shiites and minority Sunnis who want to reclaim more political power. It would also set back the clock on Iraqi politics--using the same protest tactic that Sunnis used in 2005 parliament voting that left them with only a few lawmakers and a weakened voice in key debates.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Abu Risha acknowledged that a boycott could throw Iraq into disarray. But the Awakening Council leader said the candidate blacklist likely will result in a low turnout among voters in Anbar, the mostly Sunni province that covers most of Iraq's western desert. "They will not care about of the election--they will ignore it, maybe, if these decisions stand," Abu Risha said in an interview this week. "I will make my decision later about encouraging people to go to vote or not," he added.

Abu Risha leads the Anbar province Awakening Council, a Sunni tribal militia that joined the U.S.-led fight against insurgents in 2006. Anbar was the birthplace of the uprising against al-Qaeda in Iraq, which is seen as a critical turning point of the war. Iraq's Shiite-led government has banned about 450 candidates with suspected links to Saddam's now-outlawed Baath Party. At stake in the March election is 325 seats and control of Iraq's parliament as the country prepares to stand alone when the U.S. military leaves at the end of 2011. Iraqi officials say many Shiites also are banned from the ballot, but Abu Risha claimed the vast majority are Sunni--reflecting fears that the blacklist is a government attempt to undercut Sunnis, who once controlled Iraq under Saddam and have felt politically marginalized since his ouster in 2003. U.S. officials say no more than 60 percent of the banned candidates are Sunni.

Iraqi President Jalal Talbani, a Sunni Kurd, has asked for a legal ruling on the legitimacy of the panel that is vetting the candidates. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh dismissed the threatened boycott as "futile." "Many others called for boycotting the previous elections, and this has led to nothing and even loses," al- Dabbagh said. "Boycotting will not help and will not build a national project."

Retired Army Lt. Col. Nathan Freier, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, called it "critically important" for Iraq's government and security for Sunnis to vote. Further marginalizing Sunnis could trigger violence by one-time insurgents. In turn, he said, that could lead to a counter-punch by Shiite extremists--bringing back the sectarian bloodshed that once gripped Iraq. "The Iraqi government has to come to some accommodation with the Sunnis," said Freier, a former adviser to Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

The sheikh dismissed claims that the ballot purge targets suspected Baathists. "I don't think any followers of Saddam Hussein are still in government or are trying to take power. They are sure they will not take power again because the Baath Party is not legal," Abu Risha said. In a jab at the government, he said Iraqi leaders "believe they have the right to control Iraq and we do not have any right to participate. And when the situation got bad in Iraq, they couldn't even protect themselves. So the American forces protected them." Abu Risha and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki were former allies who planned to form a political coalition last fall until Abu Risha broke off, claiming he was not being treated as an equal partner.
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Title Annotation:Weekend News Roundup
Publication:The Daily Middle East Reporter (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Feb 1, 2010
Previous Article:Palestinians-economy.
Next Article:Sudan-elections.

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