By ANNA BADKHEN
San Francisco Chronicle
December 12, 2005
"We will kick the foreigners out of our country," assures the poster plastered on a stucco wall. "We will restore fairness in Iraq," promises another, which shows terrified men in traditional dishdasha robes running away from an exploded, burning car.
Before the vote for Iraq's first four-year government, dozens of politicians are competing for the ballots of more than 500,000 voters in the Sunni Arab province of Salahuddin, and slogans like these strike home here.
Local tribal and political leaders hope Thursday's election will win the nation's once-powerful Sunnis, who make up about 20 percent of Iraq's population, a larger role in the government.
"Everybody wants to participate in this election, all the Sunnis," said Sheikh Mahmud al-Nasseri, the senior tribal leader in Saddam Hussein's home village of Auja, about 80 miles north of Baghdad. "We don't want to make the same mistake as before."
Because Sunnis are a driving force behind the insurgency, the Bush administration hopes wider representation for them will redirect the rebellion into the political process and hasten the day when the United States can bring its 160,000 troops home.
Most Sunnis in Salahuddin, like elsewhere in Iraq, boycotted the January election for the temporary National Assembly, which gave Sunni Arabs only 17 seats in the 275-member parliament. But the mood among Sunnis has shifted radically since then.
Last week, Sunni cleric Ali al-Zand told worshipers at Baghdad's Umm al-Qura mosque: "December 15 is a landmark event. It is a decisive battle that will determine our future. If you give your vote to the wrong people, then the occupation will continue and the country would be lost. Participation in the elections is a must, and it is a religious duty."
In Salahuddin, the fourth most volatile province in the country, the turnout for this month's election is expected to be as high as 80 percent. Voters in the province will choose from 46 candidates and directly elect eight members of the new parliament, which will then elect the new government from within its ranks.
Sunnis in Salahuddin say the current government has neglected their province because of its connection to Hussein, and they complain of insufficient funding for essentials such as water and sewage projects. In Tikrit, the provincial capital and home to about 200,000 people, most of the sewage seeps into an open canal that runs alongside the southern border of the city.
"The government thinks: 'This is Saddam's province; we won't take care of them, we will punish them,' " said Sheikh Hajub al-Duleimi, from Qadessiya, a suburb of Tikrit. Homes in Qadessiya get electricity from Baghdad only from midnight to 6 a.m., he said.
"Just because we live in Saddam's hometown, we get arrested if we go to Baghdad," said Mohammed Hassan Atiya al-Jabouri, president of the provincial Farmers' Union. He said Baghdad police officers detained him several months ago when he showed them his identification card, which said he lives in Tikrit. He said he spent two hours in detention until federal government officials ordered the police officers to release him.
Perhaps no other settlement has experienced the scorn of the new government as strongly as Auja, home to members of Hussein's al-Tikriti and al-Nasseri clans, which formed the backbone of Iraq's government during Hussein's 35 years in power.
The Shiite-dominated interim government has frozen the assets of many local residents, banned them from government jobs and barred them from any bank operations in Iraq, preventing them from starting their own businesses, Iraqis and U.S. military officials operating in the area say.
Al-Nasseri, who blames this sudden fall from grace on religious Shiites, says it is crucial that the next government be dominated by secular forces in order to stop the growing religious influence of the Iranian-backed Shiite parties.
"We have Shiites and Kurds everywhere now," he said. "We're not going to allow that to happen anymore."
In their search for new leadership, Al-Nasseri and many others in this town favor Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite and the former interim prime minister of Iraq, who bills himself as a tough leader and has prominent Sunni members in his secular Iraqi National Accord party.
Another popular politician is Mashaan al-Jabouri, head of the Gathering of the Democratic Party of Iraq, whose tribe dominates Salahuddin province.
Mashaan al-Jabouri is running on a promise to rid Iraq of coalition forces and pro-Iranian Shiite militias. His posters show graphic scenes of violence that he blames on Americans and Shiite forces.
"There are two forces that are tearing up Iraq: the coalition forces and the Iranian forces," he said during a visit last week to Tikrit. "Our main mission is to get all of the occupiers out of the country."
If the election once again results in a government dominated by religious Shiite parties, a lot of local Sunni leaders say they are prepared to leave Iraq - and take the wealth they acquired during Hussein's rule with them.
"We will run away, I don't care where," said Jamil Hamed Atiya al-Jabouri, a cousin of the head of the provincial Farmers' Union.
Al-Nasseri, who keeps an autographed portrait of the late Jordanian King Hussein on a magazine table in his living room, said he had received personal invitations from the leadership of at least two Arab nations to leave Iraq if the new government fails to accommodate the Sunni minority.
"It would be sad to leave," al-Nasseri said. "This is my home."
Glancing around his palatial meeting hall in Auja, al-Nasseri absorbed the artifacts of the power his clan once wielded over the country. A large crystal chandelier hung from the arched ceiling of the enormous hall, upholstered couches lined the walls, and a brass coffee pot rested next to a log crackling in the fireplace.
Al-Nasseri, like others, fears an increase in religious violence if Sunnis feel excluded from the new government.
"If Shiites connected to Iran rule our country, there will be fighting all over the country and blood up to the waist," he said, marking a line with his hand on his immaculately pressed olive dishdasha. "Electing more religious Shiites would be like pouring gasoline on a fire."
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