Concerns Over Low Sunni Turnout

Middle Eastern governments say they hope to establish good relations with whatever leadership emerges from Iraq's (search) landmark election but expressed concern over the low Sunni Muslim turnout and the rise in Shiite Muslim (search) influence.

Some commentators and newspapers had warm words for Sunday's election, in contrast to virulent pre-polling criticism from many quarters in the region. Others continued to question the legitimacy of the election, pointing to the dearth of voters in many Sunni areas, though there were no firm figures for the turnout yet.

The limited Sunni participation was no surprise. Iraq's Sunni leaders had called for a boycott to protest the U.S.-led military occupation. The raging insurgency, which carried out numerous attacks on election day as threatened, may also have kept Sunnis away from the polls. Sunnis make up about 20 percent of Iraq's 25 million people.

Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (search) were quick to praise the polls and pledge to work with Iraq's future government. But Jordanian government spokeswoman Asma Khader stressed Sunni participation was crucial for "achieving security and stability in Iraq."

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Sunni minority was the country's dominant force. But since the ex-dictator's ouster, Iraq's long-suppressed majority Shiite community has risen in influence and its representatives are expected to wield considerable power within the country's 275-member National Assembly.

Some commentators believe a Shiite-influenced Iraq may forge a strategic alliance with Shiite-controlled Iran, a worrying prospect for the Gulf region's predominantly Sunni-controlled regimes, who are opposed to Shiite minorities in their own countries seeking a greater say.

Egypt's pro-government Al-Ahram newspaper said Sunni-led regional powers, like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, "deeply disagree with the potential results of the (Iraqi) elections, which will escalate existing fears (concerning increased regional Shiite influence)."

Iraqi Shiite leaders insist they do not seek a government based on neighboring Iran's religious establishment, while Iran has tried to cool concerns of a Shiite power grab.

"We are ready to cooperate with future government of Iraq, regardless of its tendency," Iranian government spokesman Abdollah Ramezanzadeh said Monday.

Shiite-Sunni tensions are problematic for several Gulf regional countries.

Shiites are a minority in Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, except for the Eastern Province, which has a slight Shiite majority and much of the kingdom's oil wealth. Shiites are generally shunned in Saudi by conservative clerics as renegades.

In Sunni-majority Kuwait, sectarianism has not been a divisive issue, but tensions occasionally flare.

Saudi and Kuwaiti newspapers, however, paid little attention to the low Sunni Muslim voter participation or Shiite rise in power, instead lauding the defiance of Iraqis and the risk they took to vote.

Asharq Al-Awsat, a Saudi-owned, pan-Arab newspaper, noted "absent" voters in Ramadi, capital of Iraq's volatile Sunni Muslim Anbar province, but reported "noticeable participation by Sunnis in Baghdad" and some voters in troubled areas such as Fallujah and Hawija.

Kuwait's Al-Rai Al-Aam daily said the "percentage of the Sunni participation" would be one of the most "important indicators" of the elections' success. Final figures for the turnout, as for the results, may not be know for 10 days.

Jordan's King Abdullah II acknowledged Sunni turnout was "a lot lower than any of us hoped," and some Arab newspapers said the poor Sunni showing discredited the vote.

"Sunnis ... hardly bothered to vote on election day ... (which) is bound to cast doubt about the credibility and legitimacy of Sunday's elections," the Jordan Times said in an editorial.

Lebanon's English-language Daily Star said Iraq's likely Shiite and Kurdish leaders must recognize Sunni interests.

"Was it all worth it — the elections, the effort, the financial cost, the human sacrifice?" the paper asked.

"We hope so, but the ultimate test of the value of the sacrifice will be whether the months ahead will see recognition on the part of the country's Shiites and Kurds, principally, that Sunnis were mostly not part of Sunday's election process."