Will Iran Win Iraq's Election?

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Iraqis gather around a burning Iraqi National Guard's vehicle in Mosul after it was hit by a roadside bomb

Iraq’s first-ever election season got underway Wednesday, as the country’s electoral commission officially opened the campaign for the January 30 election — which sees 80 different parties and blocs in a race for seats in the National Assembly. Choosing the 275-seat assembly that will appoint a new government and then draft a new constitution will be post-Saddam Iraq's first exercise in democracy. That constitution will be put to the vote in a national referendum on October 15, and will then become the basis of new national elections to be held two months later. In something of a crash course in democracy, Iraqi voters will be expected to go to the polls on three separate occasions next year.

They’ll certainly be hoping the security situation improves. There was no let-up in rampant insurgent violence Wednesday, and a bomb that killed seven people and wounded a number of others outside one of Shia Islam's holiest shrines in Karbala may have been a reminder that some among the Sunni insurgents harbor a viciously sectarian agenda that sees naked violence against the Shiite majority as an integral part of destabilizing Iraq's transition. Whether they're attacking Shiite civilians or U.S. troops or Iraqi National Guardsmen, the insurgents have left little doubt that they're going to do their utmost to disrupt the poll. Violence is likely to increase ahead of the elections, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Richard Myers said Wednesday during a visit to Iraq. And don't expect it to ebb afterward, either — interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi warned in a speech launching his own election campaign that violence would likely continue to escalate after the election.

The scale of the ongoing carnage represents a Herculean challenge for election organizers: Mortar attacks and car bombings continue almost daily even in and around Baghdad's heavily guarded "Green Zone," which houses government and U.S. headquarters. Plainly, it's not just in the Sunni heartland north of the capital that U.S. forces face an ongoing battle to create an environment safe enough to open polling stations. Indeed, Deputy Chief of U.S. forces in the Middle East Lt. Gen. Lance Smith said Wednesday that the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has claimed responsibility for numerous terror attacks, had relocated to Baghdad following the U.S. assault on Fallujah. "He can operate pretty safely, we think," Smith added. "In some areas of Baghdad, there are those that would hide him and those that would passively allow him to operate. You can find him someplace else tomorrow." An environment that permissive to Zarqawi is hardly going to be conducive to staging an election, which means a major military operation may be required in the capital itself within the next six weeks if polling stations are to be made safe by election day. Here are some of the players and plays that will be in the news in the coming weeks:

Allawi: Incumbency's limits

Allawi, whose Iraqi National Accord is putting forward its own list of candidates as a champion of national unity, had what he thought would be better news for the Iraqi electorate, on Tuesday, with his announcement that Ali Hassan al-Majid, a.k.a. "Chemical Ali" for his role directing gas attacks on Kurdish villages during the Iran-Iraq war, would be arraigned next week on war crimes charges. Portraying himself as the agent of justice for the crimes of Saddam's regime may become a central part of the acting prime minister’s appeal to voters — given the escalating security crisis, the power cuts and gasoline shortages and other basic privations facing ordinary Iraqis, the political advantages of incumbency may be few, and Allawi's backing by the U.S. as interim leader may not work to his advantage.

Early indications also suggested that some of Allawi's allies were willing to, in U.S. political parlance, "go negative." Defense Minister, Hazem Shalan (who is standing on an independent list), fired the opening shot of his own campaign Tuesday when he accused the United Iraqi Alliance, assembled at the behest of Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, of being "an Iranian list." Shaalan proclaimed Iran as Iraq's primary enemy, and urged Iraqis to resist to the death what he called the efforts of the "black horde" in Tehran to turn Iraq into a theocracy.

Blood-and-thunder rhetoric aside, now that the makeup of Iraq's government is being put to the vote, Allawi and his allies certainly have reason to fear the Shiite-dominated mega-list that enters the race with the blessing of the spiritual leader to Iraq's Shiite majority, who has also issued a fatwa proclaiming voting on January 30 a religious duty. Fearful that intra-Shiite political rivalries would dilute the impact of the Shiite vote, Sistani mandated a top aide to broker the deal that put the major Shiite religious parties, and many secularists and independents, under one umbrella in the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA). The UIA's electoral list is headed by Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and its dominant figures include the top leaders of the Dawa party. The list also includes a handful of representatives of Sunni and Kurdish minorities, and independents ranging from former Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi to individuals associated with the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose forces have repeatedly clashed with U.S. troops over the past year. Sadr himself appears to be hedging his bets: He failed to register his movement as a political party and therefore was unable to join Sistani's list, but his spokesmen have said the movement advocates neither a boycott nor participation — and UIA spokesmen are claiming his support.

Iran’s agenda

Its national character and its backing by the clerical leadership and the two most popular parties in Iraq (SCIRI and the Dawa) make the Iraqi United Alliance favorites to emerge as the largest bloc in the National Assembly — particularly given the fact that substantial numbers of Sunnis are expected to stay away from the polls, thereby amplifying the power of the Shiite vote. Not all Shiites will vote for the UIA list, of course, but it is well-placed to carry a majority of them. Allawi has the advantage of greater access to the government-controlled media, but the Shiite list may have an effective counter in the mosques.

And while Shaalan's suggestion that the IUA is an "Iranian list" smacks of partisan mudslinging — the SCIRI and Dawa, after all, participate at cabinet level in Allawi's government, and served in the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council before that — both groups are certainly closer to Tehran, where they were based during their years in exile, than they are to Washington. U.S. officials have drawn comfort from the fact that Sistani, and much of the Iraqi Shiite clerical establishment, opposes the Iranian view that clerics ought to hold political power. Leaders of both SCIRI and Dawa have been somewhat ambiguous on this score — the Iranian doctrine has been part of the tradition of both parties, although some of the statements of their leaders suggest they may advocate more of a separation of powers between mosque and state.

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