Iraq Sunnis set to vote en masse after 2005 boycott

FALLUJAH, Hassen Jouini - Sheikh Ayfan Saadoun al-Ayfan hopes to capitalise on radically increased Sunni turnout Sunday in Iraq's polls with his bold election pitch: "Vote for me to oppose Persian hegemony in parliament!"
Standing in front of hundreds of supporters in the former rebel bastion of Fallujah, the 35-year-old urges his Sunni backers to cast their votes, a stark contrast to Iraq's last parliamentary elections in 2005 which Sunnis boycotted.

Iraqi refugees and supporters of former prime minister Iyad Allawi hold his poster during a campaign rally
Iraqi refugees and supporters of former prime minister Iyad Allawi hold his poster during a campaign rally
"The battle in parliament is between the Persians and a united Iraq, and my mission is to oppose them and reduce their numbers in parliament!" adds Ayfan, adorned in a blue dishdasha and red-and-white kefiyah, the traditional Arab male robe and headdress, with a pistol holstered under his armpit.
While deadly sectarian conflict in Iraq between Sunnis and the majority Shiites has largely come to an end after peaking in 2006 and 2007, memories of the bloodshed that killed tens of thousands are still fresh.
Many Sunnis, who consider themselves authentic Arabs, view Shiites as having come from neighbouring Iran -- thus the use of the word "Persian" as a synonym for Shiite, evoking the centuries-old conflict between Arabs and Persians.
The minority community, which accounts for around a quarter of Iraq's population, finally lost control of power in 2003 after a US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein ended more than 80 years of Sunni dominance.
In the first nationwide parliamentary elections in the wake of the invasion, Sunnis largely boycotted the vote, having failed to accept the Shiite coming to power.
In all of Anbar, which lies west of the capital, only 3,500 people braved death threats from Sunni rebel groups and Al-Qaeda to cast ballots, mostly from voting booths in Baghdad.
That figure equates to less than one percent of the province's population.
"It was a massive error," Ayfan told AFP as he left the meeting in Fallujah, under heavy armed security. "We should have participated -- we left a void and Sunday will be our revenge."
The sheikh is part of the Iraqi Unity Alliance (IUA), led by Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani, a secular Shiite, as well as Sunni tribal leaders who formed militias and turned against Al-Qaeda, leading to a dramatic fall in violence across the country.
This time around, around 800,000 voters are registered to vote in Anbar, according to the Independent High Electoral Commission in Ramadi, the provincial capital.
Along with the IUA, which has 21 candidates vying for the 14 available seats available in Anbar, three other major coalitions are contesting the province, Iraq's western-most and biggest in total area.
The most popular of those three locally is the Iraqiya bloc of former prime minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite.
In marked difference to 2005, when all of the blocs contesting the election were explicitly confessional, two mostly-Shiite coalitions are attempting to win seats in Anbar -- the State of Law Alliance of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and the largely-religious conservative Iraqi National Alliance.
"I try to convince voters of our goal -- after the sectarian violence that we have all witnessed, our objective is to build a united country around our Iraqi identity," said Saad Fawzi Abu Risha, one of Maliki's candidates in Ramadi.
Hamid Farhan al-Haayis from the rival INA articulates similar goals.
"To get a seat at the table, we must bury Sunni sectarian projects," the former leader of an anti-Qaeda militia told AFP.
In Samarra, another Sunni-dominated city in Salaheddin province north of Baghdad, voters are determined to go to the polls.
"We were under the threat of the religious fatwas (edicts) and Al-Qaeda," says Rahim Alwan, 45. "Our vote was stolen, but this time we will participate in big numbers."

Friday, March 5th 2010
Hassen Jouini

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