Abdulla Saeed walks to a makeshift tent a few kilometers from his deserted home. He hums a classic Kurdish song as he follows his donkey down a mountainside in northeast Iraq. Saeed, 61, is ferrying clothes and other essentials to eight members of his family who fled their home following a Turkish incursion into northern Iraq in pursuit of Kurdistan Workers Party, PKK, rebels in February.
The bases of the PKK and its offshoot the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, PJAK, are hidden in the treacherous terrain of the Qandil mountain range, which stretches across Iran, Iraq and Turkey. Since 1984, the PKK -- viewed by the Americans as a terrorist group -- and Turkey have engaged in bloody battles that have claimed thousands of lives in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq. Turkey's week-long incursion in February was the latest of some 20 similar military operations over the last two decades.
Meanwhile, fighting between Iran and the PJAK has been intensifying in the Qandil region since 2006, and heavy shelling occurred there earlier this week.
There is no official record of the damage that has occurred in northern Iraq as the result of the ongoing conflicts. However, locals say the recent Turkish incursion damaged dozens of villages in the area. Around 160 families from six villages in Zharawa district near the Qandil mountains fled the fighting and now live in an improvised camp, according to Azad Hasso, the district head.
Mohammad Muhssin, a local Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, official, said the fighting also uprooted around 150 families from their villages close to the Turkish border in the Amedi area, northeast of the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Erbil. Muhssin said five bridges have been destroyed in Amedi. "People from more than 200 villages used those bridges. Now the roads have been cut," he said.
Villagers said they faced economic hardship as a result of the clashes. Hassan Wssu Marf, 59, from the village of Razga in the Qandil range, said he left his home several months ago. "We can't go back to raise our livestock or to take care of our orchards," he said. "It's terrible."
Yet despite the damage and suffering caused to civilians, public support for Kurdish rebels -- particularly the PKK -- remains high. "They are Kurds and demand their own rights," said Saeed. "Neither Iran nor Turkey wants [the fighters] along the Iraqi border because [they] prevent them from destabilizing Iraq."
"I want [the PKK] to be victorious," said Goran Faris, a 25-year-old secondary school teacher in Sulaimaniyah, the largest city in northeastern Iraq. "I love them because they were the only ones who stood up to the Turkish incursion and defended Kurdistan."
The PKK and PJAK -- along with many international human rights groups -- claim that Iran and Turkey repress Kurds. However, Turkey and Iran maintain that the guerrillas are separatists, and have expressed support for each other's military operations against them. Syria, which is also concerned about separatist Kurdish groups gaining power in northern Iraq, also backed the Turkish incursion against the PKK earlier this year. At that time, the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, indicated it would not stand against the Turkish military if its operations were limited to PKK and PJAK areas in the Qandil mountain range.
"The presidential order was clear," said Muhssin. "Targeting civilians and areas far from the borders [were] red lines, and the Peshmarga [would] respond to them." However, Faris said he was frustrated that the KRG decided not to deploy the Peshmarga against the Turkish troops. "I wanted the Peshmargas to confront the Turkish troops," said Faris. "Why do we have all of those fighters if not [to fight] for something like that?" He said the KRG "was powerless. They were trying to remain neutral".
Jabar Yawar, acting minister of the Peshmarga ministry in Sulaimaniyah, insisted that the Kurdish leadership has done its best to end Turkey's military operations on Iraq soil. "We have condemned the incidents and told the entire world about them to put pressure on Turkey," he said. "President [Massoud Barzani] has sent letters to President Bush, the United Nations and presidents in the European Union asking them to pressure Turkey to stop military actions." Yawar said the KRG had also asked Baghdad to compensate displaced families and for the ministry of foreign affairs to pressure Turkey to stop shelling the Iraqi Kurdistan border region.
While fighting in the Qandil mountain range is less intense than it was earlier this year, frequent Turkish and Iranian shelling makes it hard for families to return to their homes. Yawar said the KRG was trying to hold talks with Turkey to solve the problems peacefully. The KRG has also warned the PKK not to use Qandil as a base for launching attacks against Turkey.
Sozdar Avesta, a PKK leader, said her party is open to a peaceful resolution of the conflict. She said that PKK demands include Turkey granting the rebels a general amnesty and addressing the group's grievances regarding Kurdish rights in the country. However, no PKK-Turkish negotiations appear to be on the horizon.
"We have taken up weapons only to defend ourselves," said Avesta. "If they attack us again, we are ready to defend ourselves."
BAGHDAD -- Hopes that a national reconciliation project for Iraq will work are fading due to disagreements over the plan, coupled with an upsurge in violence, according to politicians and ordinary Iraqis.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made a sweeping call for reconciliation and dialogue with a 24-point plan on June 26 which some hoped would bring the country's warring factions together and help Iraq transcend the increasing sectarian violence.
Maliki proposed an amnesty for insurgents on condition that they have not killed Iraqi civilians or multinational forces -- although the latter point has proved controversial. He also pledged to release thousands of prisoners, review the committee responsible for "de-Baathification," dissolve armed militias and open a dialogue with groups that have boycotted politics since Saddam Hussein's regime fell in 2003.
Hundreds of prisoners have been released and negotiations are taking place with insurgent groups, militias and political leaders. It is unclear which groups are involved in the current talks. But members of the National Assembly warn that progress on Maliki's plan has slowed to a crawl, while a national reconciliation conference sponsored by the Arab League is continually being postponed.
"This project isn't moving forward," said Mahmood Othman, a parliamentarian from the Kurdistan Alliance. "The negotiating sides can't agree on anything, even definitions."
Othman and Ridha Jawad Taqi, a parliamentary deputy from Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance, of which the prime minister is a member, said the main hurdles include deciding which groups and actions should be defined as terrorist and which as resistance. Some organisations, including the powerful Sunni group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, have rejected Maliki's plan because it does not extend amnesty to individuals who have fought the US-led multinational forces.
"The militant groups involved believe in the right of resistance against the occupier, and at the same time they say they aren't terrorists or takfiri [people who accuse others of not being Muslims]," said Taqi.
Wounds from the past are not easily healed. Othman noted that some groups such as Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's bloc, refuse to negotiate with Baathists "whether or not their hands are stained with Iraqi blood." The Shia community suffered enormously under Saddam's regime, some of whose supporters are now involved in the insurgency.
Sunni Arabs are believed to be leading the insurgency directed against the Iraqi government, the multinational forces and Shias. On the other side, Shia militias are believed to have infiltrated the interior ministry and to have formed death squads to kill Sunni Arabs. Some of the Shia militias are also opposed to the foreign troop presence.
The definitions are therefore politically loaded. According to Othman, Shia leaders define certain Sunni Arab groups as terrorists, while some Sunnis described armed Shia groups as "militias" -- meaning they should be disarmed. Shia political forces with armed wings view themselves as nationalists.
The National Accord Front is one of the Sunni Arab-led groups that endorsed Maliki's plan and is involved in the talks. Like the other members of parliament interviewed by IWPR, the National Accord Front's Shadha al-Abusi refused to call the plan a failure.
"Relentless efforts are being made to ensure that national reconciliation will be a success, and to calm the crisis and the situation on the Iraqi street," she said.
From al-Abusi's perspective, the main problems lie in dissolving the Shia militias, include Sadr's forces.
Samia Aziz, who represents the Kurdistan Alliance in parliament, believes that if Maliki's plan is to succeed, it will need the backing of four de facto powers that currently dominate Iraq: the government, the political parties, the clerics and tribal figures.
"An agreement by these groups will halt the terrorism which is ongoing and which serves a foreign agenda that does not distinguish between Sunni and Shia," said Aziz, who also warned that if these groups do not sign up to the reconciliation project, "the Iraqi street cannot be controlled."
Despite the blockages, there has been a degree of progress on Maliki's plan. The parliamentary committee dealing with reconciliation met for the first time last weekend, and Saudi Arabia is to host talks between senior Iraqi clerics, who are expected to pledge to stop the bloodshed. Maliki has visited neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, which have ties with Iraq's powerful tribal leaders.
Abusi noted that preparations are now under way for reconciliation conference, which is now expected to take place in Baghdad in August. The meeting was first scheduled for February this year. However, such technicalities mean little to the Iraqi citizens who continue suffer from the chaos. Government figures indicate that about 6,000 people were killed in May and June as sectarian violence rose.
"It's been two weeks since my shop ran out of goods, and I can't go to the Jamila wholesale markets because it's close to Shia and Sunni neighbourhoods and the roads are unsafe," said Abbas Sayid Ali, a shop owner in Baghdad's al-Mamun neighbourhood. "There are bogus checkpoints along the way, and people are being killed because of their IDs. If you are a Sunni passing through a Shia neighbourhood, you will be killed -- and vice versa," he added.
Mohammed Abid, a civil servant in the city, said, "The kidnappings, murders and threats continue. It seems there's no end to it, and things are getting worse. National reconciliation isn't being put into practice on the ground."
Abdul Rahman Jawed, Afghanistan's most famous Christian, is a free man. He has escaped the threat of execution for apostasy and been granted asylum in Italy, where he arrived on March 30.
But the central question his case has raised is not so easily resolved. At issue is whether Afghanistan can be both a democratic state and an Islamic republic.
Many are still stunned by how a domestic issue blew up into an international incident. Abdul Rahman, who converted to Christianity 16 years ago while working for a relief organisation in Pakistan, spent nine years in Germany before recently being deported back to Afghanistan. The divorced father of two was seeking to regain custody of his daughters from his parents. But his own father, Abdul Manan, reported him to the police, claiming that his son was unfit to raise the children because of his conversion to Christianity. The police promptly arrested Rahman.
"Yes, I handed my son over to the police because he was a Christian," said Abdul Manan. "Now I will respect whatever the courts decide."
It was clear from the start that the case put the government of President Hamed Karzai in an impossible position. On one hand, it needed to justify the western view of Afghanistan as a fledgling democracy by showing that it would defend basic human rights, including freedom of religion. But to placate the Afghan people, it also needed to show that it would enforce the laws of this staunchly Islamic republic.
The contradiction is enshrined in Afghanistan's new constitution. Article Seven states that the country supports the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with its unambiguous mandate of religious freedom. But Article Three states just as clearly that Islamic law takes precedence over any other legal considerations. International religious scholars may debate the finer points of Islamic law regarding the Abdul Rahman affair. But within Afghanistan there remains a clear and harsh consensus: he deserves to die.
"Islam states that those who convert to another religion should be killed," said Abdul Malik Kamawi, deputy chairman of the Supreme Court.
"We cannot forget the dictates of Islam or of God," said Maulawi Habibullah Hassam, a religious scholar who heads Kabul's provincial council. "According to Islam, the punishment for apostasy is death. If a Muslim converts to another religion, he puts 1.5 billion Muslims in danger. They will think, 'This man was with us, but now he is leaving.'"
The sentiment on the street was strongly against the convert.
"I thank my God that I am a Muslim," said Ahmad Farhad, 25, who sells car parts in a Kabul market. "We hate people like Abdul Rahman. He should be killed. If they give him to me, I will cut him into small pieces with a knife."
So fierce is the feeling against him that Abdul Rahman was released into protective custody. The justice ministry was made responsible for ensuring his safety until he was able to leave the country. But what seems like a cut-and-dried case in Kabul unleashed a torrent of international outrage.
According to Abdullah Abdullah, the country's outgoing foreign minister, the Afghan embassy in Washington received more than 10,000 messages in one day protesting Rahman's arrest.
"Every meeting I had in the United States involved a discussion of the Abdul Rahman case," he told a press conference in Kabul upon his return from an extended trip.
President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice both expressed concern, the Pope asked for clemency, and German chancellor Angela Merkel made a phone call. All had the same message -- Afghanistan would forfeit international support if it proceeded with the case. The international media also weighed in, condemning Afghanistan and advising their own governments to pull out of the country if the young democracy could not demonstrate elementary respect for human rights.
"If Afghanistan wants to return to the Taliban days, it can do so without the help of the United States," the New York Times said in an editorial on March 23.
Caught between domestic fury and international pressure, the Karzai government frantically sought a face-saving way to duck the dispute. It eventually hit upon the idea of having Abdul Rahman declared incompetent to stand trial. According to Islamic law, the defendant cannot be punished for apostasy if he is shown to be mentally ill.
"We released him because under the law we could not hold him any longer without charging him," said Mohammad Eshaq Alako, the deputy attorney general. "We are now waiting for the results of his doctors' examination. It looks like he has mental problems."
Other officials insisted the government had not bowed to Western pressure.
"It is completely untrue that there is diplomatic pressure on us," insisted Ansarullah Maulawizada, the head of the Kabul lower court which was handling the case. "We are working freely and independently." He added that the investigation preceding the court case had suffered "technical problems."
Protests within the country show no sign of diminishing. Over the weekend, Afghan clerics demanded that Rahman -- who has asked to be called Joel, the name he was baptized under -- be returned to Afghanistan and sentenced to death. Nearly 1,000 people rallied in the town of Kunduz to protest the government's handling of the case.
On Jan. 27 this year, at 6 a.m. exactly, my brother and I were awakened by pounding on his front door. When my brother opened it, we saw that Iraqi army forces had surrounded the area and were conducting a mass sweep of the neighborhood for wanted individuals.
I gave one of the soldiers my ID, which he took to an officer in a neighbor's house. "Who is Jasim Mohammed Khalaf?" the officer shouted.
"Me," I replied.
"Where do you live?"
"In al-Nida neighborhood."
"Why are you here in al-Askari neighborhood?"
I told him that I had sent my wife to celebrate Eid (an Islamic holiday) with her parents in the southern city of Hilla and that my brother had insisted that we spend the holiday at his house in al-Askeri in Hawija.
The officer continued quizzing me.
"What do you do?"
"I am a reporter for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
I showed him my IWPR badge. He studied it for a while and then asked if I was ready to come along with them for questioning. When I asked why, he told me that my name was on a wanted list. I couldn't believe it, so I asked again. He confirmed, and asked me to get dressed.
The soldiers took me in a pickup truck to some U.S. military Humvees, which were parked 300 meters away. They tied my hands behind my back with plastic wire and asked an Iraqi National Guard member to watch me until they finished raiding the neighborhood.
The weather was cold with a light rainfall. The Iraqi troops brought another man and seated him next to me. Hours went by before they took us to the American base, three kilometres outside of Hawija, where we were formally handed over to U.S. troops.
The American forces put bags made of hemp over our heads and pulled and pushed us as we walked. We were told that speaking was forbidden. For two hours we were left sitting silent in the dark, not knowing what would happen next. When a guard finally came, we were physically and psychologically exhausted. The guard pulled our arms and snapped iron handcuffs on our wrists. We were handcuffed even when we went to the toilet.
After they took the bag off my head, I had a look around. The room I was in measured about four by two meters and had wooden walls and ceilings. There were two other prisoners with me. A tall soldier with dark skin and Arab features approached us with an American soldier. The American asked questions, and his colleague translated. He asked whether we had any diseases or allergies to drugs. Later, they handed us bags and small boxes with food, made in the U.S. and labeled halal. But we could hardly open them because of the shackles.
They then called me in for an interrogation. The American officer welcomed me and asked me to answer frankly and clearly so that I could be released as soon as possible. I told him that was what I had hoped, and that I was ready to answer any question. He wrote down information about me and my family and relatives in addition to names of some IWPR staff to double-check if I was telling the truth.
After two hours of questioning, he promised me to do his utmost to correct the mistake of my arrest if they deemed it an error. This comforted me somewhat, as I noticed the officer sympathized with me a bit. But I lost this optimism as two days passed and nothing changed. Early in the morning of Jan. 29, an aggressive guard kicked the door to our cell and shouted, "Get up!" He threw a breakfast meal at us and ordered us to clean up everything in a big plastic bag.
Another guard entered, carrying a bunch of bags. We realized they were going to move us to another place, to Kirkuk or perhaps another location. We had to put the bags over our heads again and were taken out. We marched in line with a soldier in front and behind us. We walked for a while without knowing where we were going, while the guards laughed and pushed us as we scrambled through the mud.
Finally, they took us back to the room. It appeared that we would be kept there for a while, so I told one of the guards I wanted to talk to the officer again, and that it was urgent. In the afternoon, they took me to meet him, but he was not the one who had questioned me before.
"What do you want?" he asked me.
I repeated the same story I had told before: that I was a reporter for an international nongovernmental organization, and that my arrest was a mistake. He called Iraqi Crisis Report editor Tiare Rath, who confirmed that I was one of their reporters.
I felt much better. But still Abu Ghraib hung over me because my full name was on a wanted list. I went back to my bed praying for God's mighty help to release me and all innocent prisoners.
The next morning, they told us to put the bags over our heads again. In a windowless truck, they took us to a military airfield from where, a few hours later, they flew us to Kirkuk. Upon arrival, they took us to a narrow hall for some medical tests. After that we had to put on an orange prison uniform. They took photos of us.Then we were separated. I was confined in a solitary cell no bigger than two by one meters. And so were the others.
My cell had a light bulb but no natural light. It contained an iron bed with a mattress, two blankets, a copy of the Holy Quran and a prayer mat. I was confined in this solitary cell for four days. I suffered an enormous amount of stress due to the humiliation and isolation: We weren't allowed to talk with the other detainees, even when we went to the toilet. That was the only time we were allowed to leave our cells.
The place was inhospitable, and the silence drove us mad. The Americans always yelled at us and called us names. Their threats included taking our blankets or forbidding us from using the toilets. For example, one of the guards was very tough with all of the detainees: He did not allow us to speak and forced us to face the wall. We had to shower in groups, and the hot water ran out quickly. The water turned ice cold.
On the first day of my arrival in Kirkuk, they interrogated me for two hours. The American investigator was calm, but the translator was very rude, as if I had killed his entire family. Most of the questions were about my job and relationships. The investigator told me that as a journalist I should play a role in finding out information about militant groups. I told him that intelligence activities are not my duty.
On Feb. 2, about 20 of us were taken out of solitary confinement and transferred into a large cell, where we were kept for five days. This was a huge relief -- after almost a week of silence we were finally allowed to talk again and did not have to wear handcuffs. The moment I was allowed to speak, I wanted to cry and shout because it had been forbidden, and I wanted to break the silence that was imposed on me. The detaniees all introduced one another, and then detailed how and why we were arrested. We then discussed family affairs.
A guard, who was very nice and tried to cheer us up throughout our detention, came at 3 p.m. on Feb. 6. We had all been assigned codes, and he read out loud the numbers of those detainees who were allowed to collect their things and prepare themselves to be handed over. To whom, we did not know. I ended up with the group of men who were arrested with me in Hawija. We were glad to leave the Kirkuk detention center, but at the same time we were afraid of being sent to Abu Ghraib.
We handed over our prisoner uniforms and went to a narrow hall. An hour later, they brought us back our clothes. At 7 p.m., we were taken to Kirkuk airport and from there flown back to the U.S. military base in Hawija.
Later that night, the American captain in Hawija warmly greeted me and apologized for the mistake they had made. My arrest had been a simple identity mixup. The captain asked how they could compensate me. I told him the best reward would be that this would never happen again. He promised that it would not and made a note in my file that I am not the man on the wanted list.
We went to bed and hoped the sun would rise earlier on this day. At 4 a.m., a guard woke us. He was very nice and allowed us to talk. We were released at 10:30 a.m.
The Shia-dominated United Iraqi Alliance is looking around for coalition partners after it won nearly half the vote in Iraq's national elections. Both Shia and Kurdish groups – the other main winner – say they are looking for ways to include the Sunnis in the political process.
The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq announced on Feb. 13 that the Alliance, which was organized at the behest of the country's senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, received more than four million votes – 48 percent of the 8.4 million ballots cast. As expected, this figure – high though it is – does not give the bloc the two-thirds majority it would need to govern without a coalition partner.
Mofaq Rubai, one of the United Iraqi Alliance's candidates, described the results as a "feast" which gave "a reason for Iraqis to celebrate from Kurdistan to Basra."
"The power now lies in the hands of the people, and the 275 members of parliament will decide Iraq's destiny," he said.
The results are still provisional, as parties and candidates have three days to file complaints or appeal against the results before the outcome can be regarded as official. The Kurdish Alliance List, made up of the two major Kurdish parties, came in second with 26 percent of the vote, or more than 2.17 million ballots. This virtually assures the Kurds of a top government post.
In Sulaimaniyah, one of the regional capitals of Iraqi Kurdistan, residents celebrated the results by firing into the air.
"The results are very good and it strengthens the Kurdish position so that it corresponds with the situation in Iraq," said Nawsheerwan Mustafa, a political bureau member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, one of the main Kurdish parties in the Alliance.
The results mean that the Shias and Kurds, two groups that were oppressed under Saddam Hussein, will now hold the balance of power. In third place was the Iraqi List, led by interim prime minister Ayad Allawi, which received more than 1.16 million ballots, 13.8 percent of the vote. Allawi has presented himself as the secular Shia alternative to the United Iraqi Alliance.
Raja al-Khazay, a candidate on the Iraqi List, said the results were disappointing. "There are a lot of good politicians who won't get seats in parliament," she said.
Each bloc list or party will be awarded seats in the 275-member transitional National Assembly in approximate proportion to its share of the national vote. That means the United Iraqi Alliance will get at least 132 seats, the Kurds 71 or more, and the Iraqi List at least 38 seats. A two-thirds majority, or 183 seats, is needed to approve crucial issues before the National Assembly, including the approval of a prime minister and of a draft constitution, which will be the parliaments main duty.
Under the interim constitution, the National Assembly has to appoint a president and two vice-presidents. In turn, the president and his deputies will choose a party or coalition to nominate a prime minister and form a government. The assembly also has to approve the cabinet.
Although the final results have only just been announced, parties and coalitions have been angling for positions in the new government since the Jan. 30 election. In the last two weeks, the main Shia, Kurdish and Sunni parties have been meeting to hammer out deals.
The United Iraqi Alliance says it wants the post of prime minister, and has suggested current finance minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and vice-president Ibrahim Jaafari as candidates for the job. The two men belong to the two main Shia political forces – Mahdi is from the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, while Jaafari belongs to the Islamic Dawa Party.
"There is no competition between the parties but there are negotiations," said Rubai. "The issue is not individuals, but politics and strategies. So the strategy for the new Iraq is a federal and united Iraq that covers everybody."
Meanwhile, the Kurdish Alliance List has been pushing for PUK leader Jalal Talabani to be president. The PUK controls the eastern part of Iraqi Kurdistan while the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the KDP, reigns over the western portion.
Al-Khazay said the Iraqi List would try to maximise its position by forming coalitions with the Kurds, with al-Iraqiyun ("the Iraqis"), a Sunni party headed by interim President Ghazi al-Yawar, and with the People's Union, a bloc whose principal constituent is the Iraqi Communist Party.
Al-Iraqiyun is set to receive about five seats, while the People's Union should get two.
Of the estimated 14 million eligible voters, around 60 percent turned out for the elections. But, as expected, many Sunni Arabs stayed at home either to boycott the vote or out of fear.
Turnout for the Sunni Arab community, which accounts for about a fifth of Iraq's population, was much lower than the average. In the western province of Anbar, the mainly Sunni province where the volatile cities of Fallujah and Ramadi are located, only two percent of voters came to the polls. Turnout in the northern province of Ninewa, which includes the troubled city of Mosul, was about 17 percent for the National Assembly ballot (separate provincial elections were held across Iraq the same day).
Mishan al-Jabouri, head of the Liberation and Reconciliation Front, a secular Sunni party, said he was not satisfied with the election results. His party received more than 30,000 votes, which should translate into one parliamentary seat.
"These votes do not represent the people's will," said al-Jabouri. "These are fake elections, which produced this abnormal result."
Both the Kurds and the Shias say they want the Sunni Arabs to be represented in the new political set-up. It has been suggested that the one of the top positions – that of speaker of parliament – could go to the Sunnis. Rubai, of the United Iraqi Alliance, said the Sunnis could not be left out or marginalized, because as such a significant part of the population, they have a major role to play in establishing the state.
After the Sunni Arabs in Iraq's western Anbar governorate stayed away from last month's election, many are now considering how best to secure their interests in a changed political landscape. For some, participation in an administration that they see as the product of flawed elections is out of the question, while others want a role in governance nevertheless.
Iraq's major Sunni political groups boycotted the Jan. 30 election, after the influential Muslim Scholars' Association said a fair poll was impossible because of the continuing violence in Sunni-majority areas.
Election results indicate that voter turnout in these areas proved much lower than in the rest of the country, both as a result of the boycott, and because many people were scared by the security situation or by the possible repercussions of voting.
In Anbar, the mainly Sunni province where the volatile cities of Fallujah and Ramadi are located, turnout is estimated at just two percent.
The transitional National Assembly, which will be the first Iraqi legislature not to be dominated by Sunnis, will find it hard to function – and harder still to win universal legitimacy – if one-fifth of the population perceives itself to be disenfranchised.
The assembly's principal task is to draft a constitution by August this year, in time for a referendum in October and fresh parliamentary election in December. The final document will define how Iraq is governed and how much autonomy its regions will enjoy – issues in which Sunnis as well as Shias and Kurds have a vital interest.
The Shia and Kurdish coalitions which did well in the ballot have insisted that they want to bring Sunni Arabs on board by giving them a role in decision-making, if not in elected institutions. There has been some talk of the post of speaker of parliament being awarded to a Sunni.
The question now is whether the political forces that represent the Sunnis are prepared to take up the offer. The largest Sunni party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, has branded the elections illegitimate and refused to participate in the transitional administration that emerged from them. At the same time, the party has recently been in negotiations with the veteran Sunni politician Adnan Pachachi, who wants Sunni groups to take part in shaping the new constitution.
Others in the Sunni areas – while maintaining their reservations about the electoral process itself – want to move on and are reviewing their options. Iraqi Islamic Party member Said al-Ani voiced cautious optimism, suggesting that the National Assembly might be acceptable as long as it puts national rather than sectarian interest first.
"I think if the elected parliament finishes with sectarianism and succeeds in translating into reality the interests of those parties which took part in the boycott, it will be a good thing for the unity of Iraq," he said.
For some of those interviewed by IWPR in Anbar province, it is important for the new Iraqi administration to look strong – and that means overcoming ethnic and religious divisions quickly. They argue that a divided government will send the wrong message to powerful neighbors like Iran and Turkey.
Raed al-Dlemy was among those not opposed to the vote – he was an election official in Ramadi, 100 kilometers west of Baghdad, only resigning after he received several threats. Now he thinks that despite the low turnout figures, the Sunnis still have a chance to make their voices heard.
"The loss of Sunni votes at this stage can be compensated for when the constitution is being written, as the Sunnis will then be able to participate so as to protect their rights," he said.
Muhammed al-Ubaidi, a lawyer from the town of Hit, 50 kilometers up the Euphrates river from Ramadi, thinks it was a bad tactical move to stay away from the polling booths, saying, "It would have been better for the Sunnis to participate in the election, so as to balance the powers of the Kurds and Shias, who have now become dominant."
But many others are unrepentant about the boycott, and are determined not to work with an administration which they see as having been installed under the shadow of a foreign military presence.
"The boycott of the national and governorate council elections by most Sunnis was the only way, and the best way, to reject these ballots," said Walid al-Omari, a government employee from Anah, a town in Anbar province less than 100 kilometers from the Syrian border. "The end product is a government that is not legitimate."
Boycott supporters insist that all of Iraq's governorates must enjoy security and stability before a fair election can be held.
"In this critical period, an election is pointless, and our demand to postpone it was a good one," said Ayad Fayadh, a government employee in Ramadi. "We don't regret our boycott."
Many residents of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown, say they would vote if security threats were not such a deterrent.
"My family and I would like to take part in the election even though we don't know anything about it, but the situation doesn't allow us to do so," said Ahmed al-Sheikh Ajili, a 29-year-old electrical engineer.
On Jan. 30, Iraqi voters are scheduled to go to the polls to choose a 275-member national assembly, which is charged with writing a new constitution and appointing a cabinet. Voters also will choose 18 provincial councils and voters in the Kurdish region will select 111 members to an assembly.
Tikrit is located in the central region of Iraq, the so-called Sunni Triangle. The interim Iraqi government has imposed a curfew across this area, including Tikrit. But that has not stopped the insurgents from carrying out attacks on polling stations and candidates.
While leading Sunni politicians are urging a boycott of the elections, many voters in Tikrit say they would take part if only they had some basic information about the poll.
Ahmed Aid al-Sheikh, a resident of Tikrit, says that young people in Tikrit do not know enough about the election process. He said the problem is compounded by the security situation, which means candidates are unable to put up posters or campaign openly.
"All we know is that the list in Tikrit includes 27 candidates. Who they are, what their orientation is, we don't know," he said. "But the main problem is that we are afraid to go to the polling stations."
Sana Sufian, a local pharmacist, said she too is concerned about security.
"The terrorists think that they can stop democratic life, but we will make every effort to live a democratic life, even if it takes a while," she said. "I do want to take part in the elections, but I can't because of the statements being made by the terrorist murderers."
Traffic policeman Muhammed Marai insisted that his family would not be deterred from voting on election day. Marai said he believes the security situation in Tikrit is actually better than in Baghdad because it is smaller.
"We don't deny that a misled group wants the town to be in a state of disorder, but we are preventing them from achieving this, in order that our people can live in peace," said the policeman.
On the other side of the divide, a young man who claims to be a member of an armed group agreed to talk to a reporter on condition of anonymity. He justified the need to upset the electoral process by arguing that Prime Minister Ayad Allawi would not allow a fair ballot.
"Let Allawi forget about security as he doesn't respect his people and I don't want him to laugh at us and say the elections were free," said the man, adding, "There will be no elections, there will be no elections."
Even some of the prospective voters interviewed voiced concern that the vote would be rigged. Omer Ali Othman said if the election is not fixed at the ballot box, then the results will be altered later to suit the interests of the United States.
"We, the people of Tikrit, will take part in the elections, but the results have already been manipulated," Othman said. "All this will be in the interests of the Americans, and at the expense of our rights."