Iraq's Bloody Election Season

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On Monday Iraqi police forces block a road near a burning vehicle following a suicide car bomb attack at a security checkpoint in Baghdad

When Iraq's tough-talking interim Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan starts talking about postponing the January 30 election, it's clear that the issue is being considered at the highest levels of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's administration — despite official insistence that the poll will go ahead on schedule. Calls for an election delay from within the government aren't new — interim President Ghazi al-Yawer, a Sunni, has publicly called for a UN assessment on the feasibility of voting on January 30. But Shaalan has until now been one of the more bellicose officials in Allawi's government when addressing security questions.

Allawi reiterated on Wednesday that the poll would go ahead as planned, having had strong indications from Washington and London that the prime sponsors of his government are strongly committed to the date. Given the widely expected dominance at the polls of the Shiite religious parties, the interim prime minister's own tenure will likely be ended as a result of the election. But Allawi is under tremendous pressure from both the U.S. and the Shiite majority to proceed on schedule. For the Bush administration, postponement is too great a concession to the insurgency it has struggled to contain in Iraq, let alone defeat. Delay also opens a legal and political minefield — the current interim government has no mandate beyond the January 30 election — and raises the specter of a long-term open-ended U.S. troop commitment. For the Shiites, the election represents a long-awaited opportunity to peacefully assume power proportionate to their demographic majority, and they'll brook no delay at the behest of the Sunni minority they plan to displace in the corridors of power. And while the Sunni insurgents have the capacity for violent disruption, the Shiite clerical leadership has previously demonstrated the sort of mass urban support that, if called onto the streets, could render the U.S.-authored transition untenable.

Allawi stressed in a press conference on Wednesday that he has no authority to delay the election. Such a decision rests with the Iraqi electoral commission, which has indicated it would postpone the vote only if staging it became physically impossible. And, Allawi said, any change in the transition arrangements would have to be decided by the UN Security Council.

Allawi: Damned if He Does, Damned if He Doesn't

Those advocating postponement insist that going ahead on January 30 will mean proceeding without Iraq's Sunni population, for whom the outcome will then be delegitimized and on whose support the insurgency will be able to count for years to come. A substantial minority of the Sunni population, up to 30 percent, is believed to sympathize with the insurgency and will therefore observe a boycott call. But other, more moderate Sunni parties have withdrawn from the election on the grounds that it can't be held under present security conditions. The registering of voters and other electoral preparations in areas with substantial Sunni populations is way behind schedule, with many electoral officials having been murdered or having quit. The UN body overseeing the election plans to compensate by allowing Sunnis in volatile areas such as Anbar province (which includes Fallujah) and the northern city of Mosul to register and vote at the same time on election day. But the daily deluge of bombings, ambushes and assassinations throughout Sunni areas from the capital and its southern environs to as far north as Mosul renders the physical environment exceedingly dangerous to the would-be voter.

The Bush administration had hoped that the Sunnis would recognize that by staying away from the polls, they were denying themselves any influence over the shaping of the new Iraq, and that this would force them to reconsider. But that reasoning only holds to the extent that Sunnis believe that January 30 will be the last word on Iraq's political future. Clearly they don't, as a result of the insurgency, and the talk of finding formulae to accommodate the Sunnis if they stay away. Indeed, the calls for postponement of the elections by moderate Sunni elements such as acting President Yawer, and former U.S. favorite Adnan Pachachi — as well as wild allegations by such neighborhood leaders as Jordan's King Abdullah that one million Iranians have entered Iraq in order to vote — appear to be setting up Sunni Iraqis, and their regional allies, to question or reject the results.

To be sure, the current levels of violence make an election seem a somewhat hypothetical proposition. No day passes now without a new deluge of reports of dozens of attacks, ranging from car bombings and ambushes of U.S. and government troops to the systematic assassination of government officials and election workers, many of whom have now quit in some of the hottest insurgent target areas north of Baghdad. And while Baghdad, Mosul and the Sunni areas north and immediately south of the capital have born the brunt of the violence, insurgents have shown an ability to wreak havoc far from their home bases in such Shiite strongholds as Najaf, Karbala and Basra.

Showdown in Baghdad

The U.S. military is planning something of a showdown in the capital on election day, by deploying 35,000 troops on the streets of Baghdad to safeguard the voting process. But whether that provides an adequate sense of security to the residents of a city which records an average of around twelve attacks a day remains to be seen. And there are scores of other towns and cities requiring voter protection from an insurgency that appears to have maintained, or even increased its tactical momentum.

Despite the setback of losing a major sanctuary at Fallujah, the insurgentsí numerical strength and capabilities appear to have grown considerably faster than have the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces with the requisite competence and commitment to fight them. While U.S. officials originally envisaged the insurgents as numbering no more than 5,000 and saw them as comprising former regime loyalists and foreign terrorists — that estimate was later doubled, then trebled — the intelligence chief of the Allawi government, General Muhammad Abdullah Shahwani, on Monday claimed that the number of insurgents was more like 200,000 — in other words, greater than the number of troops the U.S. has in Iraq. And U.S. military officials and analysts have long-since conceded that most of the insurgents are Sunni Iraqis rather than foreigners. Shahwani's numbers may also explain why an operation such as the recapture of Fallujah, in which the U.S. military claimed to have killed around 1,000 insurgents and detained a further 2,000, does not appear to have turned the tide.

In pressing ahead, the U.S. intends to deny the insurgents an important psychological victory. But proceeding may well mean learning to live with a new administration in Iraq, one considerably less desirable (from Washington's point of view) than a trusted friend such as Allawi. The national assembly that will be chosen in January's vote will elect a new interim government, before getting down to the task of drafting a new constitution within nine months. And the strongest electoral slate right now looks to be the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition of Shiite religious parties and independents assembled under the discreet auspices of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani (who has also declared voting a religious duty for Iraq's Muslim faithful). While some leaders of that slate sought this week to assuage Sunni and U.S. fears over their ties to Iran — and their desire to avert a civil war and hold Iraq together strongly suggests they'll avoid mimicking Iran's theocracy and will reach out to the Sunnis — the fact remains that the dominant parties on the list are historically far closer to Iran than they are to Washington. That's why whether the election goes ahead or is postponed, January 30 looks set to mark the departure of Iraqis, and the U.S. mission there, into uncharted waters.