February 22, 2004

Iraq Secular Leaders Seek to Thwart Islamist Power


New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Feb. 21 — Several major secular parties are discussing forming an alliance to campaign against the better organized Shiite religious conservatives in the event of an election, Iraqi officials say.

The parties realize that conservative Shiites have the best chance of dominating elections, given their zealous followings and access to pulpits in mosques. That has sent the more secular parties scrambling to find viable candidates behind whom they can pool their support, the officials say.

The talks are the first effort to form a united secular front to counter the growing influence of Islamic parties.

The secular groups include the Iraqi Communist Party, the National Democratic Party, the two main Kurdish parties and a small party led by Adnan Pachachi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, say officials with those parties.

The parties cut across ethnic and religious lines. The leader of the Communist Party is a Shiite Arab, while Mr. Pachachi and Nasir Chaderchi, the leader of the National Democratic Party, are Sunni Arabs. They are all united by their views on the role of Islam in the state.

"We've had some meetings, some negotiations," said Hamid Majid Mousa, a Governing Council member who leads the Communist Party, which was driven into exile in the late 1970's and reconstituted itself here after Saddam Hussein was removed from power in April.

"Maybe later, we will nominate one person to represent us," he said.

Mr. Mousa said he preferred to call the alliance "democratic" rather than "secular" and added, "It will not be restricted by sectarianism or ethnicity or religion."

Unlike conservative Shiite parties, the secular parties do not have "clear attractions," he said, and so are banding together.

With Shiite Muslims making up at least 60 percent of the Iraqi population, many Shiite politicians and religious leaders have been pushing for direct elections for a national transitional assembly.

A senior occupation official acknowledged in private the lack of popular support for the secular groups. He said the fact that the moderates would not have enough time to organize was one reason the Bush administration opposed immediate direct elections.

The Islamists would have a better chance in a quick election, he said.

L. Paul Bremer III, the top civilian administrator in Iraq, said this week in an interview with Al Arabiya, the television station based in Dubai, that Iraq would not be ready to have general elections for a year to 15 months, citing a United Nations estimate.

Asked about the timing of elections in an interview with Knight Ridder newspapers on Thursday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said he was pleased that the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, had come "to the same conclusion that we did, that you really can't put the selection together by the end of June. And we should be looking, therefore, toward the end of the year or sometime early next year."

The debate over the timetable for general elections has upset White House plans for transferring sovereignty by June 30, particularly since Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most powerful Shiite cleric, insisted on direct elections of assembly members, not caucuses as proposed by the Americans. The United Nations is about to make recommendations.

The fears of the secular parties that immediate elections would benefit the conservatives are justified, analysts say. "There's no secular alternatives," said Joost R. Hiltermann, an expert on Iraq at the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization. "Many secular Shiites became members of the Baath Party. These people are at a loss as to what to do. They have to organize, but how do they organize?"

Feisal al-Istrabadi, an adviser to Mr. Pachachi, said the proposed alliance was an effort to fill this gap. "These liberal parties are trying to create a common front," he said. "I reject the premise that the Shiites want to have a Shiite leader. If you're looking at a liberal democratic Iraq, then you're looking at people who aren't just aligned with Shiites."

But as this country shakes off the 35-year rule of Sunni Muslims, it is the more conservative Shiite parties and religious leaders who have made the most rapid political progress.

Political parties generally lean one way or the other on the degree to which the government should base its laws on Islamic codes. Mr. Bremer ignited a fierce debate this week when he said he would veto any interim constitution that enshrined Islam as the sole source of future legislation.

In the months after Mr. Hussein was toppled, religious-oriented politicians began with a big advantage over secular ones: their ability to use mosques as their soapboxes, especially at Friday Prayers. Islamic parties also made themselves more visible by clustering around prominent religious leaders like Ayatollah Sistani. For their part, "the secular parties respect Ayatollah Sistani," said Mr. Mousa, the Communist Party leader. "But these parties all have their own ideas and thoughts and continue to tell the people about them."

The secular Shiite politician whom the American government most vigorously supported before the war was Ahmad Chalabi. Some in the Bush administration once envisioned him as their Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — a charismatic leader who could mold the country into a secular state while retaining popular support. But it has not worked out that way.

Many Iraqis distrust Mr. Chalabi and his party, the Iraqi National Congress, because of its close ties to the American government and because of his conviction in absentia in Jordan on charges of embezzlement and fraud over operations of a bank he founded there.

Last month, he came out in a Washington speech in support of direct elections. That irked many American and Iraqi officials, who said it was a transparent ploy to align himself with Ayatollah Sistani and build a political base among the Shiites.

Iyad Alawi, another secular Shiite who has received strong backing from the American government, particularly from the C.I.A., has similar credibility problems. His ties to the United States and his exile background make him suspect in the eyes of many Iraqis. His party, the Iraqi National Accord, has many Sunni Arabs and former Baathists in leadership positions.