Too Angry or Fearful to Vote, Sunni Iraqis Are Marginalized

By JAMES GLANZ

New York Times

February 12, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 11 - Abdullah Muhammad al-Ajili was standing next to his old Toyota pickup on the dusty road from Baghdad to Tikrit, simmering with resentment, the sleeves on his dark blue dishdasha rolled up on his forearms.

Mr. Ajili tries to make a living by filling the back of his pickup with fruits and vegetables in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, and selling them in other cities. But on Thursday afternoon, as on so many other days, the road was blocked by American military convoys moving armored vehicles, portable living quarters and other matériel.

"I didn't vote, and I'm not going to vote," said Mr. Ajili, 46, who like nearly everyone else in these parts is a Sunni Arab. "Saddam was bad. But this situation is worse."

Voting, he said, would change nothing. And so Mr. Ajili explained why no ballot had been cast by one of the millions of Sunni Arabs who were absent from the polls.

The unchallenged ruling class under Mr. Hussein, Sunnis decided with remarkable consistency to skip the election of the new government. Iraq's other major groups, including Kurds and Shiite Arabs, turned out in overwhelming numbers.

As a result, the Sunnis will have almost no representation in the government, whose outlines will become clear as the final election results trickle in over the next few days.

A complete picture of the Sunnis' fall, however, emerges only in an exploration of why they turned their backs on a chance to maintain a foothold in the halls of power that they controlled for so long.

Conversations with about four dozen Sunni Arabs in Mosul and the road to Tikrit in the north, in Baghdad and Falluja in central Iraq and in Zubayr in the south reveal a people who are not just determined objectors to the turn their country has taken: they are a subculture set adrift, almost unconnected to the events now shaping Iraq.

There is no single factor that explains why the Sunni Arabs, about 20 percent of Iraq's 28 million people, failed to show up for the election. Some were scared, either of general violence or retaliation. Some had little information. Others simply long for the old days of Mr. Hussein, and others like Mr. Ajili disliked their former leader but hate the Americans much more intensely. Still others believed that they were following the vague directives of their political and religious leaders.

With most of the vote for the new national assembly counted in Salahuddin Province, which is heavily Sunni Arab, it now seems there was just one vote cast for every eight of those people eligible. On Friday, new figures for a dozen provinces showed high turnouts in voting for local governing councils in the Kurdish, Christian and Turkmen north and in the largely Shiite south. In Dohuk, in the north, the turnout was 89 percent of registered voters; in Najaf, in the south, it was 73 percent.

There were no new figures on the majority Sunni Arab provinces, but in Diyala, with a mixed Sunni and Shiite composition, the turnout was just 34 percent. Baghdad, which includes all groups, had a 48 percent turnout in local elections.

Officials say that overall, 60.1 percent of all registered voters cast ballots in the 12 provinces in local elections. Final results in both local and national elections are expected over the next few days.

But the picture for the Sunni provinces is not expected to improve, American officials said. One official said the turnout in Anbar Province, which contains Falluja, would probably be in the "single digits."

In many respects, the voting is an accurate reflection of the Sunni Arabs' descent in just two years from a clan defined by the exercise of power to a broken and disenfranchised people with little stake in the system.

"I have to liberate my country first, and then hold the election," said Imad Abdul-Hadi, 27, in Zubayr, a southern Sunni enclave. "And who said the election is honest?"

In the same city, Muna Ali, 32, said the choices of party candidates meant that any vote cast by a Sunni Arab would have been wasted. "There is no need to participate in the election," Ms. Ali said, "because there is no one to represent us."

But even some Sunni Arabs who might have voted stood little chance, given their situation. "No, I didn't vote," said Muhammad Younis Thanoon, 26, a teacher in Mosul. "I was confused."

Mr. Thanoon said he visited a local cleric for advice on the election. "He told me that taking part is not haram," or forbidden, Mr. Thanoon said, "but if you don't, that would be better for you. On my street, no one has taken part."

Standing before a Sunni mosque that Mr. Hussein built after the 1991 war - the Mother of All Battles Mosque, which is adorned with minarets in the shape of Scud missiles - Abdul Aziz al-Gaylan, an ophthalmologist, said, "The Sunnis cannot be marginalized."

But then he added that the new government, the one that will have few Sunni voices, "is not authorized to speak on our behalf."

Mr. Gaylan did not vote, either.

The American official said this week that Sunni sheiks were already in "a period of assessment," and tending toward the conclusion that their constituency had played its hand wrong in boycotting the elections. "I think there is a sense of, I guess I would call it regret, among parts of the Sunni community that they did not participate," the official said.

Those regrets are already heard from some Sunnis who did not vote. "Participation will be for the Sunnis in the coming years," said Majeed Alwan al-Sammarae, 41, who has a doctorate in Islamic sciences from Baghdad University. He spoke outside the same mosque, which is now, for political correctness, called the Mother of All Towns Mosque.

In fact, Dr. Sammarae had already decided to vote on election day but could find neither his polling station nor anyone in his heavily Sunni Arab neighborhood who could tell him where to go. By contrast, Shiites and Kurds - the latter are mostly Sunni - described extremely well planned efforts by their local mosques and political groups to get out the vote.

Sunni Arab communities are also plagued with more violence than other places in the country - violence that, in a vicious circle, is often perpetrated by a shadowy segment of the Sunni populace itself. In her decision not to vote, Karima Muhammad Ahmed, 40, a teacher in Falluja, cited "the lack of security, and the fear of what might happen if I had gone to the voting center."

Ms. Ahmed, who said the nearest polling center was nearly a mile from her house, added almost plaintively that "if I had the opportunity to vote, I would elect the Iraqi List," the group headed by the current president, Sheik Ghazi al-Yawar, a Sunni.

With the most recent returns, Mr. Yawar had slightly less than 1 percent of the vote. The party led by Adnan Pachachi, another Sunni, who served as Iraq's foreign minister in the years preceding Mr. Hussein's rise to power, received roughly one-quarter of 1 percent.

Scattered here and there were Sunni Arabs who did succeed in voting. In Falluja, which United States-led forces invaded in November, a government employee named Abu Ahmed Addulaimi, 35, managed to cast a vote. "We must give our votes to the one we trust," Mr. Addulaimi said.

But far more often there is an angry negative when Sunnis are asked if they voted.

"No, I didn't, and why should I when I don't know any of them?" said Abu Ashraf, 40, the owner of a furniture shop in Adhamiya, Baghdad's heavily Sunni district. "I don't even have hope in the coming government. My view towards the future is really miserable."

Abu Taha, the owner of a shopping center in the district, said: "If I felt the elections would solve the crisis, I would have participated. But the situation is stagnant - no change - the same theft with different faces, that's all."

Out on the highway to Tikrit, three men sipped tea in a roadside shop as they waited for the traffic to move and for the American convoys that they despised to disappear.

"Well, I didn't vote," began Abu Amjed, 60 and a retired army officer.

In this place, the sham elections in which Mr. Hussein won 100 percent of the vote were perfectly fine.

"Look at the whole situation," Abu Amjed said. "No electricity. No gasoline. Security - two years and they couldn't improve it. Bring Saddam back."

Another retired officer, Abu Ibrahim, said: "Yes, I agree with Abu Amjed. Saddam was much better. He was giving food to everyone, and then had the people vote for him."

They went on drinking tea, lost in what they saw as a glorious era, and one that had come to a stop as surely as the traffic outside the shop.

Reporting for this article was contributed by Khalid Hassan in Salahuddin; F. Temimi in Zubayr; Dexter Filkins, Edward Wong, Khalid al-Ansary and Zaineb Obeid in Baghdad; andemployees of The New York Times in Falluja and Mosul.