Saturday, December 17, 2005

A New Start

A photo of Ansam Shahib Ahmed, a translator at the Civil Military Operations Center (CMOC) in Fallujah, Iraq, casting her vote on National Election Day, Dec. 15, 2005

Dec. 16. - An incredible firefight erupted outside the CMOC last night, starting with a few scattered pops from an AK-47. Within seconds, a crescendo of gunfire echoed throughout the city, the night alive with machine gun fire from AK’s and RPK’s. The first firefight was short-lived and trailed off after 45 seconds but was followed by longer, more sustained display of small arms fire about 10 minutes later. At first, the Marines of the CMOC reacted normally, accustomed to the sound of occasional gunfire. However, the sheer volume and intensity of the 2nd firefight gunfire caused more concern than usual and soon the shouts of “gear up, gear up” were being yelled down the hallways.

Through the evening, the sound of Iraqi Police sirens wailed in the distance. The night air was alive, and one could easily close their eyes and imagine they were in New York City. Perhaps the commotion was a reaction to the elections and the closure of the polling sites. Whatever the cause, this was a night of remembrance for Iraqis eager to start a new lease on life.

I finished the day’s interviews with the Director of the CMOC, LtCol. Eloy Campos. Eloy is a Cuban native who emigrated to the US at the age of 15. Commissioned in the US Marine Corps in 1985, he has directed the operations of the CMOC and its Marines since early September. It is my opinion that the elections in Al Anbar Province would not have been successful without the direct intervention of the CMOC Marines. Whether sponsoring meetings for local officials, providing basic necessities for the Iraqi Election Committee members, our hosting international media representatives present to report on the election process, the CMOC directly contributed to the success of yesterdays elections.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Iraq Vote Is Seen As Step Forward

Some hope the relatively calm elections portend a waning of violence. Pragmatists note the tough task of forming a government lies ahead.

By Richard Boudreaux, Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The Sunni imam stood before 400 worshipers during Friday prayers in Abu Hanifa Mosque and weighed the meaning of the previous day's big election turnout by Sunni Arab voters.

It was too soon to tell how many Sunnis would sit in Iraq's new parliament, Sheik Ahmad Taha said in his sermon. But he prayed that the minority's belated entry into electoral politics would, with the help of God, bring an end to bloodshed and "free our land from American occupation."

Expressed in different words, that goal was shared by the Bush administration and leaders across Iraq's sectarian and ethnic divides. It is a vision that could again prove elusive, however, as Iraqis count votes, seat a 275-member Council of Representatives and wrangle over the makeup of a government in the weeks ahead.

Pragmatists caution that Thursday's election, with its greater Sunni participation, would not by itself halt the Sunni-led insurgency or prompt the United States to start withdrawing troops.

Yet Western officials, Iraqi politicians and many voters say enough was different about this election to suggest that it could mark a turning point.

"I do not want to say we have achieved the big breakthrough we were looking for," said a Western diplomat who has tracked Iraq's nascent democracy and relentless insurgency over the last year. "This is going to be a long process. But yesterday was definitely a step forward."

Sunnis dominated Iraq's leadership during the rule of Saddam Hussein but disassociated themselves from politics after his ouster by U.S. forces in 2003. Last January, Sunnis boycotted the election of an interim parliament, enabling the Shiite Muslim majority to control the interim government in alliance with ethnic Kurds.

This time Sunni political parties, including some with ties to the insurgents, were on the ballot. Clerics in Sunni mosques across the country urged their followers to vote, and several insurgent groups agreed to refrain from targeting voters.

In January, insurgents staged more than 250 attacks on election day, killing 44 people. This time, U.S. military officials counted 18 attacks on polling stations. Eight people died.

In Shiite mosques Friday, religious leaders declared the election a success, saying it had undermined the insurgency.

"For those who were saying they have been marginalized and excluded from political life, this pretext for terrorism no longer exists," declared Jalaluddin Saghir in his sermon at the Bratha Mosque in Baghdad.

But few expect the insurgents to hold their fire for long, even as some Sunnis expected to be elected to the new council are likely to press an agenda similar to the insurgents'.

"This is not going to stop violence," President Bush said during an interview Friday on the PBS program "NewsHour." "There are still people out there that are going to try to affect the political outcome, the political debate, with violence."

Sunni politicians and voters insist on a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Sunni cities in central and western Iraq. They seek the release of Sunni prisoners held without charges and an end to killings of Sunni detainees, reportedly at the hands of the Shiite-run Interior Ministry and Shiite militias.

They also want the council to limit decentralization of powers in order to prevent Kurds in the north and Shiites in the south from controlling most of Iraq's oil wealth or breaking away.

Before those explosive issues can be addressed, Iraq faces weeks of vote counting and horse-trading.

The United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite coalition that has led the interim government, is again expected to fall short of winning a majority of the votes cast. That would require it to bargain with other blocs over the selection of the president, prime minister, and Cabinet ministers.

Such talks can spark violence. Iraqis saw a rise in insurgent bombings during the nearly three months it took to form the interim government early this year.

With official returns from Thursday's vote not expected for a week or more, Sunni parties have already challenged the fairness of elections in parts of Iraq.

They charge that some Sunni districts were deprived of ballots and some Sunni voters were kept from the polls by armed gangs or militias affiliated with Shiite and ethnic Kurdish parties. Irregularities and intimidation could cost Sunnis as many as 10 seats, their leaders say.

But so far, they have been careful to avoid discrediting the entire election.

"Our people's determination is to go forward with the process," said Iyad Samarrai of the Tawafaq front, a leading Sunni coalition. "I don't think there will be a regression."

Sunnis are expected to gain representation in line with their share of Iraq's population. The electoral system divides 230 of the 275 parliamentary seats by province, and Sunni candidates could get as many as one-fifth of those directly elected seats.

Their ability to bargain for Cabinet posts will diminish, however, if returns from those regions scatter votes widely among competing Sunni parties. Among the many contenders are the Iraqi Consensus Front, led by the Iraqi Islamic Party, whose support helped the U.S.-backed constitution survive an Oct. 15 referendum, and a ticket led by Saleh Mutlak, a former member of Hussein's Baath Party, who opposed the charter.

Both Sunni groups say they intend to test their power by trying to amend the constitution, especially to strengthen the central government. It is a battle they say the insurgents, who are fragmented into dozens of groups, will watch closely. The Sunnis are unlikely to succeed in their efforts.

"The process for constitutional revision stacks the deck very much against any attempts at change," said Nathan Brown, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. To avoid a standoff, he added, "we will need to see flexibility not only from the Sunnis but from Shiite and Kurdish leaders."

Sunnis are also expected to press the new government to set a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops, first from Sunni cities and then from the rest of the country.

About 30,000 troops, whose return to the United States had been delayed until after the election, are expected to leave soon, putting American troop levels at 137,000. Any further reduction would be subject to agreement between the new Iraqi leadership and the United States, and would depend on Iraq's ability to build up its own armed forces, U.S. officials say.

Whether political compromise and a drawdown of U.S. forces will weaken the insurgency is a different question.

Insurgent sympathizers said in interviews after voting Thursday that the rebels had simply adopted politics as another weapon and would fight both inside and outside the government against American troops and Shiite targets.

As Sunnis take their seats in parliament, the government is expected to hear arguments — once considered taboo — that the only effective way to blunt the insurgency is to negotiate directly with "nationalist" insurgent leaders. By that they mean Sunnis not affiliated with Al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist group led by Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab Zarqawi.

"The government needs to differentiate between terrorism and resistance and to negotiate with the resistance, invite it into the government," said Samarrai, the Sunni political leader, who is expected to win a seat in parliament.

"If the government rejects this, the violence will increase."

Times staff writers Edwin Chen in Washington and Ashraf Khalil, Caesar Ahmed and Raheem Salman in Baghdad contributed to this report.

1 comment:

Mei-Ling said...

Let freedom ring! Hoo-rah!