Secret US Diplomacy Brings Hoped-for Sunni Turnout

For the first since the US-led invasion of March 2003, post-Saddam Iraq stands on the threshold of a genuine tipping point. This is because the Sunni Arabs have finally made up their minds to vote in the Dec. 15 election for the 275-seat National Assembly that will determine the shape of Iraq’s regime.
In the last of his four Strategy for Victory speeches on Iraq, President George W. Bush Wednesday, Dec. 14, noted that at last Sunnis are campaigning vigorously in this week’s general election.
Sunni leaders have accepted that boycotts of the election a year ago for a transitional assembly and the October referendum on a new constitution were a mistake. This time, polling stations in Ramadi, capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province, which did not bother to open in October, collected balloting materials in good time.
The new legislature will be charged with creating a government to replace the transitional administration serving at present. Voters will be able to choose 275 deputies from among 231 contending parties and their 7,655 candidates
To generate a relatively secure environment for Iraq’s 15 million eligible voters, the government has sealed the country’s borders and banned road and air traffic. US troops are deployed in force on the leaky borders from Syria to hold down hostile incursions. Several Islamic terrorist groups, including al Qaeda in Ira and the Islamic Army in Iraq, promised not to disrupt the voting, although that is no guarantee of non-violence by any means.
While Iraq’s feet are treading the road to democracy as a nation, little has improved in the lives of Iraqis as individuals. The level of terrorist violence is higher than ever, Shiite-Sunni rivalries are acute; hundreds of cases of abuses have been uncovered in at least two detention centers under the aegis of the Shiite-led interior ministry where Sunni prisoners were held in subhuman conditions. This was confirmed two days before voting by US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who promised the American government would accelerate the investigation to determine who was responsible.
Furthermore, the Kurds of northern Iraq are quietly pressing ahead with the building of a semi-autonomous enclave based on a grab for the region’s oil riches. Despite the optimistic forecasts coming from Bush administration officials, the New Iraqi Army is taking shape far too slowly for any informed party to venture a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops.
The massive deployment of many thousands of Iranian sleeper cells across Iraq provides a sinister backdrop to overt events in Iraq. Although warned off, Tehran is liable to activate those cells at a time and in a manner of its choosing – without notice.
Already, according to debkafile‘s sources, Iranian agents are extending substantial logistical aid to Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq, to some of the Sunni insurgent groups and to radical Shiite militias.
Even Saddam Hussein’s trial, which alongside the general election was meant to symbolize Iraq’s transition from a corrupt, repressive tyranny, to a stable, enlightened democracy, was a flop that was played out publicly to the Iraqi people and Arab world.
Despite all these tribulations, debkafile points to some hopeful signs.
1. The expected Sunni Muslim voter turnout is the brightest prospect. They have come to acknowledge that their earlier boycotts cost them missed chances. Had they voted en masse, they might have thrown out the constitution devised by the Shiite-Kurdish coalition. Now they are going after a solid Sunni share in the institutions that govern the country.
2. The National Reconciliation Conference that took place in Cairo in October at the initiative of the Arab League and behind-the-scenes US blessing, opened up a quiet diplomatic channel for American diplomats in Iraq led by ambassador Khalilzad to talk with a group of Iraqi Baathist Sunni insurgent leaders.
debkafile‘s sources in Iraq reveal the gist of Sunni position as it emerged from those talks:
A. We are not fighting simply for the sake of spilling blood. We will give up on bloody violence if we are convinced that the occupation will come to an end.
B. We do not claim exclusivity in representing the Sunni Arab interest and are prepared to work with fellow Sunni groupings on equal terms.
C. We accept a multi-communal, multi-partisan regime in Iraq.
Nizhar al-Dulaimi, the Sunni businessman and founder of the Iraqi Progressive Party was the main go-between in the US-insurgent exchanges. He had actively urged Sunni voters to turn out. Tuesday, he was murdered in an ambush laid for his convoy in Ramadi.
But by then his work had borne fruit.
Our sources report that the important Islamic Front for Iraqi Resistance – JAME – issued new guidelines. One calls on JAME members to break off ties with Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s followers, namely al Qaeda; another, with an eye to the future, orders adherents to desist from attacks on infrastructure and national resources such as oilfields and pipelines.
debkafile‘s military sources say it is too soon to say whether these directives are carrying weight on the ground and affecting the insurgents’ rank and file’s collaboration with the terrorists.
But Wednesday, in certain Sunni-dominated voting districts, local Sunni tribal militias linked to al Qaeda undertook to secure the polling stations instead of Iraqi police and soldiers. This too is thought to have been generated by the pre-election understandings forged between the US and certain Sunni leaders.
If these understandings yield the two goals of vaulting Iraq’s Sunni Arab community into mainstream national politics and power-sharing, and driving wedge between guerrilla groups and al Qaeda, Iraq’s general election may be counted a modest success.

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