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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

IRAQ: Elections will be about religion v secularism - new parties

BAGHDAD, 2 December 2004 (IRIN) - Elections scheduled for the end of January will be about religion verses secularism, not a power struggle between formerly strong Sunni Muslims and majority Shi'ite Muslims as most people think, leaders of two newly formed political parties told IRIN.

“I think some people want to use religion to advance their political cause. Politics is about serving the people, not showing them the way to heaven. Church and state should be separate,” Hamid al-Kifaey, leader of the new Movement for Democratic Society, told IRIN.

“You have to put religion aside.” Al-Kifaey has been involved in Iraq’s two separate interim governments set up after US-led forces entered the country.

Voters will choose candidates from the new parties because they represent democracy, al-Kifaey said. All other parties are formed based on religious or tribal affiliation, al-Kifaey said.

Iraq is to elect a 275-member parliament in which at least 25 percent of the seats are to be held by women. Regional governments and a separate parliament to govern northern Iraq will also be elected. Voter registration is being done through food ration cards issued to every family to counteract former international sanctions imposed on Iraq.

Getting the message out that they are different is the biggest challenge to the new parties, al-Kifaey said. The party plans to put forward 50 candidates and also to form a coalition with like-minded candidates and parties, he said.

“I’m a well-known person because I have been in politics for a long time. People say hello to me when I visit their cities,” al-Kifaey said. “People will come to our side.”

Saad Saleh Jabr, head of the Nation Party, whose father was Iraq’s prime minister before former president Saddam Hussein took over, agrees with al-Kifaey. “I am Shi'ite, but we are not for religious groups taking over,” Jabr told IRIN. “We can all go to church, but we all want to serve Iraq.”

Jabr is careful to note that his party has Sunni Muslims and Kurds as well. But he complains that Iraqis were split by years of ethnic tensions and calls for people to recognise their national identity.

“Here, we say, ?I’m Shi'ite, I’m Sunni, I’m Kurdish.’ I want it to be like it is in the United States, where everyone says, ?I’m American’,” Jabr said.

In the holy city of Najaf in southern Iraq, followers of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have been campaigning in recent days to get people out to vote. Sistani is seen as the religious leader of Shi'ite Muslims in the region, although he will not run for office. Shi'ite Muslims have been putting up campaign signs and holding press conferences to encourage people to vote.

Hussain Shahristani, a prominent Shi'ite Muslim and a nuclear physicist, is expected to run as al-Sistani’s representative. Anti-US cleric Moqtada Sadr is expected to have Sheikh Ali Shmeisem run as his representative. Shahristani would not need to campaign for the election because the Shi’ite voter base is already known, said a Baghdad spokesman for Sistani, declining to be named.

In a positive sign that influencial Shi'ites are not openly supporting candidates, the marjahea, or Shi'ite religious council, has decided not to endorse any candidate, the spokesman said.

Ten Sunni Muslim parties and Kurdish parties called recently for elections to be postponed, saying that January was too soon for things to be calm enough for voters to go to the polls.

US troops continue to fight insurgents in various places around Iraq. More than 170 foreigners and Iraqis have been kidnapped and car bombs and mortar attacks are common in the capital and other cities.

Making a decision to postpone elections would require a meeting with the United Nations, which is offering technical help for the elections, and other groups, said Hussain Hindawi, president of the Iraq Independent Electoral Commission.

Shi'ite parties said they would not accept a postponement. While no census has been done since 1997, Shi'ites are thought to make up 60 percent of the country’s estimated 22-27 million people.

Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's party, the Iraqi National Accord, took part in the conference that led to a call for a delay in elections. As soon as Shi'ite parties spoke out, Allawi's party also said it never intended to join in the call for a delay.

Sistani originally called for elections in the spring. At that time, he agreed to abide by timing set by United Nations officials. They said elections could not technically be held in less than eight months, which led to the January date.

Theme(s): (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Governance, (IRIN) Human Rights



This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2004

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