Iraq's Imperfect Election

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Iraqi women walk past election banners of Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi al-Maudaresi in Baghdad

Some form of election will be held in Iraq on January 30. But Tuesday's admission by interim prime minister Iyad Allawi that voting will be impossible in "pockets" of insurgent violence underscores the likelihood that the legitimacy — and finality — of the results will be questioned by important constituencies inside Iraq, and in its neighborhood. The repeated requests by moderate Sunni (and even some Kurdish) leaders, including Sunni interim president Ghazi al-Yawer, for postponement of the polls has positioned them to question its outcome. So, too, the neighbors: Speaking in Washington earlier this week, Jordan's ambassador to the U.S. questioned the validity of an election in which, he said, up to 40 percent of Iraqis would not be able to vote.

The security situation in Iraq remains perilous to the point that the commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, admitted last week that right now, security conditions in four Iraqi provinces militated against holding elections. Those four provinces, of course, include Baghdad, and between them house as much as half of Iraq's population. There will be a limited number of polling stations even in some of the most dangerous regions, but it's also relatively certain that the raging insurgency — and the political opposition to the poll among some Sunni groups — will keep hundreds of thousands of prospective voters away from the polls throughout the Sunni heartland, as well as in such major cities as Mosul and Baghdad. Still, Prime Minister Allawi believes that to postpone the poll would be to capitulate before the insurgency, and it's far from clear that the situation would be much different six months from now.

If the assault on Fallujah last November was to have been a model of military action to prepare the way for voting in cities with a strong insurgent presence, its results have been questionable. Only about 8,500 of the city's estimated 250,000 residents have returned to their homes in the rubble of Fallujah, and the military operation has left many Fallujans even more hostile towards the U.S. and its allies.

Insurgency Untamed

More importantly, the Fallujah operation failed to turn the tide against the insurgency, which Iraq's intelligence chief said last week now comprises some 200,000 men, with its hardened core numbering some 40,000. Besides a daily drumbeat of attacks that have killed hundreds of Iraqi security officials, politicians and civilians, they have also expanded their capability to hurt U.S. forces. The suicide bombing of a Mosul mess tent last month that killed 18 Americans may have seized the headlines, but equally disturbing are three roadside bombings in the past week in which two Bradley armored vehicles and an Abrams tank have been destroyed by improvised explosive devices, killing their occupants. Observers believe the insurgents may now be building more powerful bombs in order to tackle U.S. armor.

At the current troop levels of both the insurgency and their own forces, U.S. commanders are not optimistic about defeating the insurgency. Indeed, the Pentagon appears to be debating a new exit strategy and has sent respected retired general Gary Luck to conduct a frank review of U.S. operations in Iraq, the premise being that things are not going well.

For now, however, the reality remains that the election will go ahead, but in some places will take place amid an often terrifying level of violence.

A Very 'Secret' Ballot

Fear of violence may stop many Iraqis going to the polls, but those that do get there will be handed a ballot paper that could prove deeply confusing. It will simply list, in an order decided by lottery, 111 different options, for which the voter can cast one vote. This list comprises 75 parties, 9 coalitions and 27 individuals. It ranges from mega coalitions like the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), comprising the major Shiite religious parties and scores of independents grouped together on a single slate at the discreet behest of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to individuals who have put their own names on the form in the hope they can achieve the approximately 44,000 votes nationwide that will be needed to gain a seat in the 275-member National Assembly.

The parties on the ballot will be identified simply by name, symbol and the name of the candidate at the top of their list. The vast majority of these parties and coalitions have been created over the past year, and are unknown to most Iraqis. Each party or coalition has put forward a list of candidates, and it will be allocated seats in the assembly proportionate to the share of the nationwide vote it wins on January 30. For example, if a party or coalition wins 20 percent of the nationwide vote, it will be allocated 55 of the 275 seats in the Assembly — automatically filled by the first 55 names on the list submitted by that party or coalition to the Iraqi Electoral Commission in December. But in order to protect the candidates from assassination, each party or coalition's list remains secret less than three weeks away from election day. Right now, Iraqi voters will be asked to choose a party list without knowing the names of any but the top candidate — giving a whole new meaning to the term "secret ballot."

For most candidates who enjoy negligible national name recognition, the need to get out and campaign may be offset by their survival instinct. But the circumstances in which the election will be held may be less of a problem for the Shiite UIA list than for most others. It has the advantage of clerical backing and association with Grand Ayatollah Sistani, the supreme spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiite majority, who has declared it a religious duty to go to the polls (an act that for many Iraqis will require considerable physical courage). The list's grounding in the most popular Shiite parties (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the Dawa Party) and its blessing by Sistani, make it the favorite to emerge with the largest share of seats in the National Assembly, and its leading candidates are likely to be top contenders for the jobs of Allawi and others in the current interim government. The new assembly must elect a new government before getting on with writing a new constitution for Iraq by August 15.

Courting the Sunnis

The likelihood of low Sunni participation — and the resulting reluctance of many Sunnis to accept the outcome — could compound Sunni alienation from the post-Saddam order. Indeed, a discreet State Department poll recently found only 12 percent of Sunnis believe the poll will be legitimate or fair. Aware of the danger of escalating a sectarian civil war, leaders of the Shiite alliance have identified reaching out to the Sunnis as a top priority after the election. A Sistani aide told an Arab newspaper last weekend that the Grand Ayatollah believed "the representation of our Sunni brethren in a new government would have to be effective regardless of the results of the election." He also mentioned that a new government would have the standing to demand a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq — a key demand of the Sunni rejectionists, most recently expressed by the influential Muslim Scholars Association during a meeting with U.S. embassy staff last weekend as a precondition for joining elections. If the Sistani-backed list prevails on January 30, the call for a U.S. withdrawal may emerge as a key point of consensus in any Sunni-Shiite rapprochement.

The January 30 election, given its already-apparent flaws, is unlikely to be the final word on Iraq's immediate future. But it may well result in a transfer of the reins of power in Baghdad from longtime U.S. ally Iyad Allawi to Shiite religious-political leaders less inclined to accept Washington's tutelage. The election may well mark a turning point for post-Saddam Iraq, although in which direction is far from clear.