Saturday, December 11, 2004

Iraq elections -- too many questions

December 11, 2004

Iraq elections: Too many questions, too few answers

pv vivekanand
There is an air of superficiality in the run-up to elections in Iraq which Washington and the interim government in Baghdad insist would be held as scheduled on Jan.30. Indeed, there is little doubt that the elections will be held, barring a sweeping last-minute surprise of whatever nature. That much is clear, since both the Bush administration and the interim government are in a bind. They could not delay the elections if only because that would alienate the country's Shiites who are expecting to gain power by virtue of their majority in the population and thus set right what they consider to be as injustice done to them throughout recent Iraq history. Furthermore, delaying elections beyond Jan.31 will be in violation of the UN Security Council resolution adopted early this year, paving the way for some form of recognition of the American role in Iraq.

Political groups representing the Sunnis, who constitute about 18 per cent of the country's population, had called for a deferment of the elections, but some of them have now announced they would take part in the polls. One thing is clear: The Sunnis do not stand any chance of returning to the privileged position they had enjoyed under the Saddam Hussein regime. They are desperately seeking some assurance that they would not be written off as a political force in post-Saddam Iraq. For some of them, disrupting the election is an option.

The northern Kurds were initially seen as enthusiastic about the polls before they would be electing representatives to their own autonomous government in the north where they eventually want to set up an independent Kurdistan. In loose terms, it would not be an exaggeration that the Kurds could not care less what is happening in the rest of the country as long as their interests are not challenged. That is what their bitter history of aspirations and broken promises has taught them.

However, the two major Kurdish parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, joined Adnan Pachachi, a former Sunni minister, who led a group of 17 political parties asking that the vote be delayed by six months because of the violence. Obviously, they are apprehensive that a Shiite victory in the elections under present conditions might impose constraints on their options.

Countering the call for postponement, a group of 42 mainly Shiite and Turkmen parties issued a statement declaring moves to delay the elections were illegal.

Election uncertainties

There are many uncertainties about the election that would see an assembly of 275 members chosen to write a permanent constitution for the country and lead the Iraqis to another election by the end of 2005 if the constitution is approved in a popular referendum.

These uncertainties include questions over how many of the country's 18 provinces will actually vote or where election is possible at all in view of the deteriorating security situation. The absence of any province in the process will immediately raise questions about the credibility and legitimacy of the elected assembly.

One of such provinces is Anbar, which includes Fallujah and Ramadi. where it is illogical to expect people to turn up for voting, given the devastation that they suffered in the recent American military assault aimed at "pacifying" the towns by purging "foreign militants." Mosul and Babil are seen as other "troublesome" provinces.

Writing in The Washington Post, columnist Charles Krauthammer insisted that it would be the Sunnis' loss if they did not vote.

"There has been much talk that if the Iraqi election is held and some Sunni Arab provinces (perhaps three of the 18) do not participate, the election will be illegitimate," he wrote. "Nonsense. The election should be held. It should be open to everyone. If Iraq's Sunni Arabs -- barely 20 per cent of the population -- decide that they cannot abide giving up their 80 years of minority rule, which ended with 30 years of Saddam Hussein's atrocious tyranny, then tough luck. They forfeit their chance to shape and to participate in the new Iraq. "

Then there are questions over "foreign meddling" in Iraqi affairs that, to a large extent, could determine the shape of the region. Regional leaders and analysts are raising the spectre of an Iranian-influenced outcome of the elections that would create new realities in the region.

If indeed Iran is "meddling" in Iraqi politics with a view to having its allies gain power in the elections, then there is little sense or logic in the argument that the Iranians are also helping "foreign militants" undermine security and maintain the country unstable for polls. But that logic is missing from the arguments of many.

Voting process

Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister, acknowledges that the situation in "three or four" of the country's provinces is problematic for elections and he also suggests that the voting process could be spread over 15 to 20 days to ensure maximum participation.

"I think one could envisage elections spread over 15 days, 20 days, with polling on different dates for different provinces. ... That would allow for adequate security arrangements to be put in place," he said.

However, phased elections might not be an option because the voting process could not go beyond Jan.31. If Allawi's proposal was to be entertained, then it would mean starting voting by mid-January.

Obviously, staggering the election would allow the interim government to move security forces from one place to another.

Initial response from Electoral Commission chief Adel Hussein Al Hinadwi was negative, but on Wednesday he kept silent after interior ministry spokesman Sabah Kazem described the Allawi proposal as "an excellent idea, which we support one hundred per cent."

"This would permit holding the elections on another date in those places where it is not possible to organise them for the planned date. It would also facilitate the work of international observers and guarantee the participation in the election of all regions of Iraq," said Kazem.

Canada is helping the interim government prepare for the elections. It will host a Dec.19-20 international forum in Ottawa on Iraqi election preparation and observation methods.

Among those questioning the viability of elections was UN election adviser Lakhdar Ibrahimi who said elections could not take place in the present circumstances.

"Elections are no magic potion, but part of a political process," he said late last month. "They must be prepared well and take place at the right time to produce the good effects that you expect from them.'

Asked if elections under present conditions were possible, Ibrahimi said: 'If the circumstances stay as they are, I personally don't think so. It is a mess in Iraq."

Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked how elections could be held in a country under foreign military occupation. "Honestly speaking, I cannot imagine how it is possible to organise elections under the conditions of occupation by foreign forces," Putin said during a Kremlin meeting with Allawi.

"At the same time, I don't understand how you alone can remedy the situation in the country and prevent its disintegration," Putin told Allawi, adding: "I hope we will succeed in examining all these complex and contradictory issues."

Security situation

The number of American soldiers in Iraq is expected to go up by 10,000 to 140,000 by mid-January. They are supported by some 20,000 allied soldiers.

In principle, the interim government has some 83,000 policemen and guardsmen, but only 47,000 of them are said to have undergone basic police training in security-linked tasks and crowd control.

Intelligence assessments have shaken Washington's declarations that the situation in Iraq would improve with the January elections.

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has warned that Iraq would descend even deeper into violent chaos unless the interim government asserts its authority and improve the economy. It is a tall order, given the spiralling violence and almost daily attacks on the country's oil lifeline.

Another intelligence estimate prepared for the White House four months ago predicted that Iraq's security situation could remain tenuous at best until the end of 2005. It also warned Iraq faced the risk of civil war.

President George W Bush has sought to portray the increasing violence ahead of the elections as an effort by militants to undermine the polls.

"As election day approaches, we can expect further violence from the terrorists," Bush said on Tuesday. "You see, the terrorists understand what is at stake. They know they have no future in a free Iraq, because free people will never choose their own enslavement. They know democracy will give Iraqis a stake in the future of their country."

However, that assertion was seen in the Middle East as skirting the real issue since the insurgency should be seen in the broader context of anti-American sentiments and not as strictly Iraq-specific since those mounting guerrilla attacks against the US-led coalition forces are not exclusively Iraqis either.

Commentators also say that many Iraqis want the elections postponed. Egypt's Al Akbar daily wrote: "While the military operations are escalating in Iraq, disputes over elections are mounting, too. Different sects of the Iraqi people want to postpone them because their results wouldn't express the true will of the Iraqis ... All Arab and Muslim peoples have got many concerns over Iraq's stability, which will never be resolved except through the US withdrawal from the war-torn country."

Raad Alkadiri wrote in Lebanon's Daily Star: "There is arguably a large plurality -- if not a majority -- of the Iraqi Arab electorate that remains secular and nationalist in political orientation and that opposes the sectarian and ethnic agendas of the large parties, but that has no effective public voice. Without political vehicles to represent the views of these Iraqis, there is a real danger that they will opt out of the election altogether ...

"This is a troubling scenario ... The greatest number of Iraqis need to be brought on board, even if this means delaying elections temporarily ... Otherwise, the elections will simply serve to heighten the sense of disenfranchisement that many Iraqis have felt since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, creating a dangerous thorn in the side of successive Iraqi administrations, whose legitimacy they will contest."

Neighbours' pressure

In the meantime, the US and the interim government in Iraq are stepping up pressure against Syria as well as Iran by accusing them of allowing the guerrilla war against the US-led coalition forces in Iraq to be directed from their territories.

The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that American military intelligence officials have concluded that the Iraqi insurgency is being directed to a greater degree than previously recognised from Syria.

The report does not say the Syrian government is directly involved in guiding the insurgency but Damascus is accused of hosting former Saddam Hussein loyalists who are channeling money and other support to those fighting the US-led coalition forces in Iraq.

"Based on information gathered during the recent fighting in Fallujah, Baghdad and elsewhere in the Sunni Triangle, the officials said that a handful of senior Iraqi Baathists operating in Syria are collecting money from private sources in Saudi Arabia and Europe and turning it over to the insurgency," said The Washington Post.

In Washington, Iraqi President Ghazi Al Yawar as well as King Abdullah of Jordan said after separate talks with Bush that external powers were meddling in Iraq.

Yawar said the guerrillas fighting in Iraq were getting help from Syria.

"There are people in Syria who are bad guys, who are fugitives of the law and who are Saddam remnants who are trying to bring the vicious dictatorship of Saddam back," Yawar said. "They are not minding their business or living a private life. They are . . . disturbing or undermining our political process."

King Abdullah said that the governments of both the United States and Iraq believe that "foreign fighters are coming across the Syrian border that have been trained in Syria."

A global positioning signal receiver was discovered in a bomb factory in the western part of Fallujah and this "contained waypoints originating in western Syria," said a US military statement last week.

In Baghdad, the interim deputy prime minister, Barham Saleh, said that he was losing patience with Iraq's neighbours. He did not name Syria, but noted that Iraqi police had arrested a Syrian driving a car bomb packed with artillery shells and other explosives. "There is evidence indicating that some groups in some neighbouring countries are playing a direct role in the killing of the Iraqi people and such a thing is not acceptable to us," Saleh said.

"We have reached a stage in which if we do not see a real response from those countries, then we are obliged to take a decisive stance."

American officials have repeatedly complained that Syria is not doing enough to check the cross-border flow of insurgents to Iraq. The US government has also demanded that Syria either hand over the Saddam loyalists responsible for the insurgency or expel them from Syrian territory.

"The Syrians appear to have done a little bit to stem extremist infiltration into Iraq at the border, but clearly have not helped with regards to Baathists infiltrating back and forth," said a senior US military officer in the region quoted by the Washington Post. "We still have serious challenges there, and Syria needs to be doing a lot more."

Charges denied

Syria has rejected the charges outright. . "There is a sinister campaign to create an atmosphere of hostility against Syria," said Syrian Ambassador to the US Imad Moustapha.

In separate interviews, both Yawar and King Abdullah also said Iran is trying to influence the Iraqi elections with a view to creating an Islamic government that would dramatically shift the geopolitical balance between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in the region.

Yawar charged that Iran is coaching candidates and political parties sympathetic to Tehran and pouring "huge amounts of money" into the campaign to produce a Shiite-dominated government in power in Baghdad.

According to King Abdullah, more than one million Iranians have crossed the border into Iraq since the Saddam regime was toppled and many of them would vote in the election -- with the encouragement of the Iranian government. "I'm sure there's a lot of people, a lot of Iranians in there that will be used as part of the polls to influence the outcome," he said.

He said Iranians are paying salaries and providing welfare to unemployed Iraqis to build pro-Iranian public sentiment

"It is in Iran's vested interest to have an Islamic republic of Iraq . . . and therefore the involvement you're getting by the Iranians is to achieve a government that is very pro-Iran," King Abdullah said.

He predicted that if an Iranian-influenced government assumes power in Baghdad, then a new "crescent" of dominant Shiite movements or governments will emerge, stretching from Iran into Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

"If Iraq goes Islamic republic, then, yes, we've opened ourselves to a whole set of new problems that will not be limited to the borders of Iraq. I'm looking at the glass half-full, and let's hope that's not the case. But strategic planners around the world have got to be aware that is a possibility," said the King.

He said Washington had communicated its concern to Iran through third parties and "there's going to be some sort of clash at one point or another."

"We hope it's just a clash of words and politics and not a clash of civilisations or peoples on the ground. We will know a bit better how it will play out after the election" in Iraq, he said.

Given that "regime change" in Iran is one of Bush's priorities in his second term, the outcome of the elections in Iraq is all the more important for Washington. But, as King Abdullah warned, the Bush administration might end up with a new Shiite-led axis running from the Gulf to the Mediterranean if Iranian-backed parties were to gain power in Iraq. That axis might indeed prove too formidable for the US to handle.