A High-Risk Election in Iraq

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VOTE! A poster urges supporters of Sistani to participate in the coming elections

Judging by the statements of those who have the power to decide, an election will be held in Iraq on January 31 — come what may. Despite calls for a six-month delay from Iraqi political parties involved in the current interim government, both President Bush and interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi insist the election will proceed on schedule.

The case for postponement is based on the perilous security situation, which has shown no sign of abating despite the U.S. victory in recapturing Fallujah, and also on the likelihood that more Sunni Arab Iraqis would heed calls to boycott the election than would turn out to vote. Advocates of staying on schedule question whether either the security situation, or the political orientation of the Sunnis, will have changed sufficiently to alter the equation six months from now. And, of course, the mandate of the current government ends on January 31, and no formal arrangements were ever agreed for its extension. The most compelling argument in their quiver, however, is that the Shiite religious establishment will brook no further delay in allowing Iraqis to elect their own leaders, and postponing the vote could trigger an insurrection.

Instead, the U.S. and its allies are looking to an "if you build it, they will come" logic, relying on the high stakes — seats at the table shaping a new Iraqi constitution — to call the Sunnis' bluff. '"Do they really want to opt out of an electoral process that is going to pick a national assembly that drafts the constitution and shapes the political future of their country?" asked U.S. ambassador John Negroponte in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. "Or do they want to be represented in some way so that they have a seat at the table? I think once they realize the elections are going forward as planned, they'll have to deal with that reality. A number of them are coming round to the view that they should participate." That logic may also explain the resolute insistence on sticking to the election date, because any sign of wavering would undermine efforts to warn the Sunnis that the train of history may depart the station without them.

The idea of staging an election two months from now, when much of the country, including the capital and even the heavily protected "Green Zone" that houses government and U.S. headquarters, is within daily reach of insurgent car bombs, mortars, rockets and other implements of destruction is certainly a gamble. Electoral preparations have been stymied by the ongoing violence in Sunni areas, and the performance of the newly minted Iraqi security forces, which would be required to guard polling stations, has fallen far short of the expectations of U.S. commanders. The U.S. wants Iraqi forces to provide the tens of thousands of men needed to guard polling stations on election day, both to minimize the impression of the vote being held under the guns of a foreign army whose presence is widely resented, and also to avoid exposing large numbers of American troops to insurgent attack. But it's far from clear that the Iraqi forces are up to the challenge.

If the U.S. and its allies hope to bring Sunnis on board by sticking to the election schedule and presenting the Sunnis with the specter of being left out of discussion over a new constitution, the insurgents plainly hope to do the opposite. They hope their campaign of violence and calls by their political allies for an election boycott will convince Sunnis that a January 31 election will not be the last word on Iraq's future. They're tapping into widespread Sunni anger over Fallujah and other counterinsurgency efforts, and a more general fear for the future among the Sunni minority for whom democracy represents an end to the relative privilege they've enjoyed since Iraq was first created by the British.

A significant Sunni boycott of the poll, of course, would likely mean that such a poll would not, in fact, be the last word. There is a clear consensus among the U.S. and its allies, regional players and even the Allawi government that no durable solution is possible in Iraq without Sunni participation. If the vote is conducted without the Sunnis the new government's legitimacy may be viewed as incomplete, and it will be under tremendous pressure from the region and its international backers to negotiate new arrangements to accommodate the Sunnis.

For the Shiites who constitute around 60 percent of the population the election presents not only a path to power congruent with their majority, but also as a peaceful means for ending the U.S. occupation. That's precisely the terms in which the get-out-the-vote message of the Shiite clerical leadership is being couched. That leadership is showing a canny ability to ensure an electoral outcome favorable not only to their ethnic concerns, but also their desire to give the political institutions of a new Iraq a more Islamic character than the U.S. might have liked. The Shiites' supreme spiritual authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, appears to have recognized the danger that a multiplicity of competing Shiite parties would diffuse the overall impact of the Shiite vote. To avoid that possibility, which could see the more secular and pro-U.S. parties such as that of Prime Minister Allawi profit from a split vote among Shiites, Sistani has corralled most of the major Shiite political parties into a single electoral coalition. Led by the Dawa Party and Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Iran-backed moderate Islamist groups that constitute the two largest parties in Allawi's interim government, the Sistani list incorporates smaller parties ranging from jilted former U.S. favorite Ahmed Chalabi to the movement of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Not only that, Sistani has issued a fatwa declaring it the religious duty of Shiites to turn out and vote.

Allawi may be a Shiite, but he hasn't joined Sistani's alliance, and at this stage appears more likely to stand in a coalition with the two major Kurdish parties and other moderate secular elements. But if Sistani's "Shiite House" list remains on track, it will be the odds-on favorite to emerge as the most significant force in a new assembly. The "Shiite House" is led by moderate parties have not backed the insurgency, but they are closer to Tehran than to Washington, and are likely to ask the U.S. to immediately begin withdrawing its forces from Iraq. Asking the U.S. to leave appears to be something of a consensus position among Iraqis of different stripe: Some 80 percent of respondents to a Gallup poll taken in Iraq shortly before the Fallujah operation wanted the U.S. forces to leave immediately after the January 31 election. Ironically, perhaps, a new government requesting a U.S. withdrawal may actually create the basis for a new government bringing the Sunnis into the process — although the violent buildup to the election may exacerbate sectarian tensions.

The vote may well go ahead on January 31, but it's unlikely settle the conflicts that have roiled post-Saddam Iraq. Whether or not the poll proceeds, however, its date may usher in a new chapter of the post-Saddam power struggle whose script and cast of characters have yet to be written.