Sheikhs Say Tikrit Not Given Enough Parliamentary Seats

With Iraq's first multi-district elections coming in less than a month, U.S. officials are scrambling to provide support and training to a few key areas — mostly Sunni Muslim provinces. In Saddam's hometown of Tikrit, angry sheikhs complained that their province is being shortchanged on seats in the new parliament.

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Iraq's parliamentary elections are less than a month away now. US officials are focusing outreach and training efforts on a few key areas, mostly provinces with large Sunni Muslim populations. Sunni Arab participation in the voting is seen as a critical step in isolating the largely Sunni insurgency that's plaguing the country. NPR's Peter Kenyon recently took a trip to one Sunni area, Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.

PETER KENYON reporting:

As with previous elections, Iraq's latest political season never fails to impress; among other things, for the amazing expense, effort and risk involved in what, in other circumstances, would be routine campaign trips.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

KENYON: Tikrit is only about a 90-minute drive from Baghdad, but because those roads are still considered too dangerous to travel, embassy officials, US election advisers and one member of the Iraqi Election Commission climb aboard two US military helicopters to make the trip. The commissioner, identified as Mrs. Suad(ph), didn't mind if reporters used her name, but she didn't want her picture taken. A slight woman dressed in black with a white head scarf, she looked even smaller in a military flak jacket and helmet.

On the ground in Tikrit, the visitors get a white-knuckle taste of driving on roads sometimes watched by insurgent gunmen and frequently seeded with explosives. An SUV convoy screams down the street at a breakneck pace before lurching into a heavily fortified driveway. Local residents look up in surprise as the convoy races past. If the visitors were hoping to be seen as friends dropping by with some helpful advice, this entrance fails to convey that impression.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Inside, Sunni travel sheiks in traditional robes and headdresses mingle with political party leaders in suits and ties. They're here to learn how to run a modern campaign and also to complain to Mrs. Suad about perceived injustices being done to Salahuddin province. The undercurrent of discontent begins to surface as the local Election Commission representative, Salah Halil(ph), runs down the registration numbers that allowed Salahuddin province to get eight seats in the new parliament. Even he says those numbers sound too low.

Mr. SALAH HALIL (Election Commission Representative): (Through Translator) The number of voters registered for the last election was 488,000. By this year's referendum on the constitution, that number was up to 563,000. I have asked for more complete numbers because there are immigrants, displaced people. Some are living on military bases, and others don't have ration cards.

KENYON: As Mrs. Suad opens the floor to questions, it becomes clear that everyone here feels this largely Sunni Muslim province is being discriminated against. One sheik jumps to his feet with a typical comment.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through Translator) How can you say Sulaymaniyah, with less population than us, gets 15 seats while we only get eight? How can you do that? You are trying to convince me that in Salahuddin province, if you go by the registration numbers, we get eight seats. We refuse that.

KENYON: Mrs. Suad shakes her head. His numbers don't sound right to her. But then no one can claim to have truly accurate current population figures for Iraq. One election adviser in the back of the room whispers that the seats were allocated according to the registration numbers used in last January's voting. That vote admittedly underrepresented the Sunni minority, which largely boycotted the election. These Sunni leaders have come to the conclusion that if there are 27 million Iraqis and just over 270 seats in the parliament, then every 100,000 people should equal one seat in the legislature. Therefore, they say, Salahuddin province should have 10, 12, maybe even 14 seats.

But election officials say that's not the method used by the National Assembly to create these election districts. For one thing, they counted eligible voters, not total population. Even if some of these complaints have merit, it would seem too late to redistribute parliamentary seats before the December 15th vote. Still in Iraq, it sometimes seems that everything is negotiable, and as Mrs. Suad prepares to leave, she says these numbers may not be cast in stone.

Mrs. SUAD: (Through Translator) I think they are right in their claim. Maybe we can deal with it. Our office will have to investigate these complaints and to find the solution.

KENYON: Then another taste of politics, Iraqi-style. Someone asks Mrs. Suad her last name. She says, `al-Jabouri(ph),' and the stern sheiks towering over her are suddenly gasping with delight. She's related, it seems, to most of them. Suddenly, their problems don't seem quite so distant and insurmountable. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Baghdad.

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