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The most powerful Shia parties in Iraq unveiled an electoral pact yesterday under which the majority of Shia leaders would stand together during the election set for 30 January.
Major Sunni factions, whose participation in the vote will be crucial to making it legitimate, were not, however, included and have not put forward a list of candidates.
The Shia list of 228 names will have the crucial backing of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shia religious leader. Known as the United Iraqi Alliance, it should win the support of many Shia voters who make 60 per cent of Iraq’s population.
The group includes two sectarian Shia parties, the Islamic Dawa Party and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, as well as the secular Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmed Chalabi.
The coalition of 23 parties will put new pressure on the Sunnis to participate in the election, especially now that it seems far more likely to proceed.
The 275-member assembly to be elected on 30 January will draw up a constitution to be submitted to a referendum. Based on this constitution, there will be a further election on 15 December next year.
While the Alliance may do well at the polls, the extent to which it will expand the influence of the Shia in Iraq is not clear. Much of the powerful Sunni community is in revolt and will not vote.
The Kurds, politically experienced and well organised, want to secure a large measure of autonomy and control of the oil city of Kirkuk, and they wish to reverse the ethnic cleansing of Kurds that was practised by Saddam Hussein in northern Iraq.
The Alliance does not include Muqtada al-Sadr or his militant movement, which has opposed the US occupation. “We have not participated in this list and we are still suspending our participation in the elections,” said Ali Shemeism, an aide to Mr Sadr.
“We have been subjected to a campaign of suppression and the arrests against al-Sadr’s followers are continuing.” But Hussain al-Shahristani, who helped draw up the list, said it had Mr Sadr’s support.
President George Bush and Tony Blair have portrayed the armed resistance as opposed to the holding of elections. Its real basis, however, is opposition to the US occupation.
It has become more sectarian in recent months, because most of the police and Iraqi National Guardsman killed in suicide attacks are Shia. The Sunni also resent the lack of Shia criticism of the American assault against Fallujah.
Mr Sistani has made clear that he opposes the occupation and has refused to meet US officials. He has, however, sought to steer his community away from armed revolt and towards participation in an election in which they can assert their majority.
Mr Bush, responding to criticisms by US troops in the Gulf, said yesterday that concerns about inadequate equipment were being addressed and he did not blame soldiers for raising the issue with the Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld.
A day after he was bombarded with criticism from troops based in Kuwait, Mr Rumsfeld promised that more would be done to protect forces and that steps were being taken to deal with explosive devices, a leading cause of death in Iraq, where more than 1,000 American soldiers have been killed in action.
The troop complaints put the administration on the defensive after Mr Bush rejected charges from the Democratic challenger, John Kerry, in last month’s presidential election campaign that the military forces in Iraq did not have sufficient protection.
Mr Bush said: “The concerns expressed are being addressed, and we expect our troops to have the best possible equipment. And if I were a soldier overseas, wanting to defend my country, I’d want to ask the Secretary of Defence the same question.”