Can Iraq Rule Itself?

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Election posters hang all over Baghdad

Democracy in Iraq is in the eye of the beholder. Some see in next week's national election a gleam of salvation after years of tyranny and occupation; others perceive the sharp threat of civil war. For the al-Saadi family in Baghdad, the Jan. 30 election can't come soon enough. "I'd like to go out and vote right now," says Karim, 43, an electrical-goods salesman who supports a family of 12.

His neighborhood, the hardscrabble district of Washash, home to a mainly Shi'ite population of laborers and small traders, is one of the few in Iraq's capital where a high voter turnout is predicted.

His mother Sabiha has lofty hopes for what an elected Iraqi government can achieve. "It will solve all our problems," she says.

"We will have electricity, my children will have jobs, and I won't have to worry about their safety when they go out."

A few miles across town, the outlook is far gloomier. In the mainly Sunni, middle-class neighborhood of Saidiyah, residents question not only what the election means but also whether it should take place at all.

Building contractor Omar Nasreddin, 47, says he intends to sit out the vote. Sunni clerics have called for a boycott, while extremists have threatened violence against those who take part. Nasreddin's reluctance stems from a suspicion that the U.S. will rig the vote.

"Whoever is elected will immediately sign over Iraqi sovereignty to the U.S.," Nasreddin says, "and keep American troops in Iraq forever." He is so concerned about his fate under a new government that he asks not to be identified by his real name.

Such is the divide in Iraq on the eve of its ready-or-not plunge into democracy: heady optimism on one street, jittery paranoia down another. In a country roiled by insurgency and sectarian tensions, occupied by a foreign army and populated by citizens largely unfamiliar with the democratic process, this is a time of profound uncertainty. The U.S. and the interim Iraqi government are hopeful that at least half the country's 15 million eligible voters will take part in the election, but no one can predict with any certainty what the turnout will be, especially among the disaffected Sunni population, who make up about 20% of the electorate. "We have no idea," says Carlos Valenzuela, head of the U.N. team overseeing the elections. "It would be up to the Iraqi public to determine." For many, just getting to the polls will be a challenge. The government plans to close all roads in the three days leading up to the vote.

With insurgents promising to sow chaos on election day, the mere act of casting a ballot has become a life-threatening proposition. Even in the holy city of Najaf, in the heart of largely Shi'ite southern Iraq, there are palpable fears of election-related violence. "Every day I watch when a car pulls up in the street," says Abbas Hamid Abdul Rezea as U.S. Marines erect concrete barricades across the road from his home at a school that will serve as a polling station.

"Every day we are so scared."

For the Bush Administration, the election is producing anxieties of a different kind. The Administration has long touted the vote as a step toward handing over control to the Iraqis and paving the way for an eventual reduction of the U.S. troop presence. The establishment of a popularly elected government, in the U.S. view, would help erode support for the insurgency. But it's highly likely that the vote will be compromised by violence and plagued by Sunni underparticipation, and that means the legitimacy of the new government will be suspect from the start. And while some members of the insurgency—whose estimated strength could be higher than 20,000—may be coaxed to come in from the cold, there's little chance that jihadist guerrillas will abandon their goal of fomenting civil war. As if to underscore the point, a group loyal to Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, the most-wanted insurgent in Iraq, released an Internet audio message last week in which al-Zarqawi purportedly vows to wage holy war against the U.S. and its allies in Iraq for years.

Even as it confronts an enemy determined to keep fighting past Jan. 30, the Administration is facing the most serious erosion yet of public support at home. A range of polls show almost half of Americans support a drawdown of U.S. forces after the Iraqi election.

And despite the increasing potency of the insurgents and the inadequacy of U.S.-trained Iraqi forces to deal with them, only 4% of Americans believe that more U.S. troops should be sent to Iraq, according to a Los Angeles Times poll. For now, however, there's no timetable for reducing their ranks. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told TIME that "it's foolish to predict numbers and how much [the U.S. troop presence] will go down. It depends on how fast Iraqi security forces come along." Members of congressional armed-services committees are being warned privately by senior uniformed officers to expect at least 100,000 U.S. troops to remain in Iraq not only through this year but perhaps even through 2006.

Democratic Congressman Martin Meehan, who recently returned from Iraq, says, "There's no evidence I've seen in any briefings to suggest that violence will go down. It absolutely won't go down."

Given that sobering assessment and vows by the insurgents to step up their onslaught, will next week's elections matter? For Iraqis and Americans alike, much depends on whether the new government can prove that it has real authority, bring disenfranchised Sunnis into the political process and quickly establish itself as a credible body willing to work for national reconciliation. Considering the performance of the current government, headed by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, chances that the new leadership can impose order aren't great. If it fails, the country could slide into civil war. And yet, unlike the U.S.-appointed Allawi regime, which answers to Washington, an elected government will be able to control its own destiny. As Iraqis take over, the country may well become more conservative, less secular and perhaps more hospitable to Iran. That may come as a rude jolt of reality to those who still believe Iraq could become a beachhead of liberal democracy in the Middle East. But for Americans who are merely looking for a way out of Iraq, next week's election could well be the start of the withdrawal process.

Holding the vote, of course, will be challenge enough amid the chaos. But that's only the start. There is every indication that Sunday's vote will lead to a fractured, and highly fractious, Transitional National Assembly, in which no single party will command a clear majority. The new government's ability to deal with both the insurgents and the U.S. will be circumscribed by multiparty politics—a whole new notion for Iraq. It will be, as democracies usually are, noisy, messy and unpredictable.

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