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Iraq’s Sunnis wary but hopeful about upcoming election

May 10, 2018

In this Tuesday, May 8, 2018 photo, campaign posters for Iraqi Sunni political blocks line a street in the predominately Sunni neighborhood of Azamiya, in north Baghdad, Iraq. There’s a mixture of hope and apathy among Iraq’s minority Sunnis ahead of the May 12, 2018 parliamentary election. The military defeat of the Islamic State group delivered millions from its harsh rule, but has left more than 2 million people, mostly Sunnis, displaced from their homes amid heavy destruction that will cost billions of dollars to repair. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

HASSAN SHAM CAMP, Iraq (AP) — After bearing the brunt of a 3½-year war against the Islamic State group, Iraq’s minority Sunnis have a key concern ahead of Saturday’s parliamentary election: Will the winners be more inclusive toward the Sunnis, whose marginalization partly fueled the rise of the extremists?

There’s a mixture of hope and apathy in the Sunni communities. The military defeat of IS in nearly all of Iraq’s territory has delivered millions from life under the group’s harsh rule, and the campaign rhetoric has been less sectarian in the days before this election.

Still, the war has left more than 2 million Iraqis, mostly Sunnis, displaced from their homes, with cities, towns and villages suffering heavy destruction. Repairing infrastructure across Anbar and Nineveh provinces, both majority Sunni areas, will cost tens of billions of dollars, local officials say.

“The issue is that the country has been destroyed, but the change is in your hands. This is your last opportunity!” candidate Abdulkarim Suleiman Nuaymi told a crowd of dozens of people gathered in a small clearing amid the tents of a camp for displaced families.

Nuaymi, running with the Nineveh is Our Identity coalition, delivered a message that reflected the mood among Sunnis.

“I’m ashamed of our situation,” Nuaymi said. “The problem is that all these politicians, they just want to repeat what they’ve done already. What new (plans) do they have to offer?”

Nuaymi, a lecturer at the University of Mosul, said the marginalization of the Sunnis can be traced back to U.S. policy in the aftermath of the war that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The U.S. policy of purging the political and military spheres of their Baath Party members — mostly prominent Sunnis — left many of those Sunni communities without leadership. The move was intended to cull Saddam loyalists from the rank and file, but the scars on Iraq’s political society are still visible.

Divisions within the Sunni political leadership have kept the sizeable minority from effectively wielding power in parliament. Instead, in the past 15 years, the Shiite majority consolidated control over key ministries and branches of Iraq’s security forces.

The marginalization of the Sunnis came to a head under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and it bolstered the power of the Islamic State. In the summer of 2014, the extremists overran nearly a third of Iraq, plunging the country into crisis and leading to al-Maliki’s ouster.

Just weeks after the IS blitz, Haider al-Abadi took over as prime minister and pledged to end sectarian politics. He appointed a number of Sunnis to key cabinet posts, but presided over a government so fragmented that parliament often deadlocked, making it impossible to pass legislation.

Despite the political difficulties in Baghdad, al-Abadi oversaw a military campaign against IS, and he declared victory over the group last year. Months later, however, the need for a massive rebuilding effort remains. Al-Abadi has sought to balance both Iranian and U.S. influence, against other Shiite politicians seen as closer to Iran.

The enormity of the rebuilding task, the entrenched corruption and the past experience of marginalization has led some Sunnis to say they simply will not bother to vote.

“Definitely not voting. Even if my brother nominated himself, I would not participate,” said Nabil Subhi, a middle-aged Sunni from Samarra who now lives in a suburb of Irbil. He explained that the Iraqi constitution, drafted in 2005 after Saddam’s overthrow, would need to be rewritten entirely for him to have faith in the government.

When asked about the current Sunni leadership, he said dismissively: “Whether they are Sunni or Shiite, they are all corrupt.”

Although some Sunnis boycotted past elections, they appear more interested in partnering with Shiites this time. Shiite politicians are campaigning in Sunni-dominated areas for the first time, and al-Abadi has welcomed Sunnis to his alliance.

Nearly 7,000 candidates are vying for 329 parliament seats. No single alliance appears capable of winning a majority.

Sunni politicians have expressed concern that turnout among members of their community may suffer because most of Iraq’s displaced people are Sunnis. Election officials say those who live in displacement camps will be able to vote in special polling stations in and around the camps by using any official ID card.

Those who are living in rented housing or elsewhere will be required to show a biometric voting card, the distribution of which remains low.

There is no precise data on the displaced, but Farhan al-Kiki, an election official in the Sunni-majority city of Mosul, said only 67 percent of its residents have received a voting card.

Ali Hamed, another displaced Sunni living in the same Irbil suburb, said voting is essential.

“We want to participate in the election precisely to ensure that we will not go through the same stages again that we have just passed through,” he said, referring to the rise of IS and the war that followed.

In Baghdad, the end of the war against the extremists ushered in a period of relative security and stability, leaving many with the feeling that Iraq is headed in the right direction.

Saad Ibrahim, a 47-year-old university professor from Baghdad, said he believes the incoming leadership will be more inclusive.

“I expect that alliances after the elections will attract more Sunni involvement in the next government,” he said. “The experiences of our recent past show that no single political party is able to win a majority.”

In Azamiyah, a majority Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad, 51- year-old Essam al-Obeidi echoed Ibrahim’s optimism.

Iraq “achieved relative stability in spite of economic difficulties,” he said. But he was uncertain if it would last.

“We hope the government has begun reviewing their past mistakes, so waves of extremism will not appear again,” al-Obeidi said.

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Al-Saleh reported from Baghdad.

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