Vol. 5 Num 221 Thu. January 06, 2005  

Iraq elections: A choice between the devil and the deep blue sea

Come January 30, 2005, Iraqi voters will choose 275 members of a national assembly, as well as electing members to 18 provincial assemblies and to the autonomous Kurdish parliament in the north, that is, if the elections can be held fairly, peacefully, with full participation of all, and without hindrance and let.

That appears to be a difficult proposition given the current security situation in Iraq. In large parts of the country, because of insecurity, many voters have not been able to register as yet. No proper census of an estimated 12 million voters has been possible, understandable, given the constraints of time and compulsions of security. Security and lack of time has also forced the Iraqi election commission to reportedly sacrifice both voter education and the safeguards necessary for a fair election.

However, one hopes that the Iraqis are better educated about the purpose of the election than the US president, whose response to a query as to whether Sunni participation was essential in the upcoming Iraqi election to make it free and fair, replied that he was, "confident when people realise that there is a chance to vote on a president, they will participate." Well, the fact of the matter is that Iraqis will be voting neither for a president nor any other executive in the January 2005 elections!

Iraq elections are indeed a test case for the US. The Daily Star editorial hit the nail on the head when it said: "Most Iraqis see the election as perhaps the beginning of the end of US occupation. On the other hand, the US would see this as a fulfillment of a 'just' endeavour, which was to 'free' the Iraqi people, and through it establish the justness of their cause."

In as much as it is a test case for the US and the occupation forces to hold elections as per schedule, a schedule sanctioned by UN Resolution 1546, there is strong opposition against the proposed elections in Iraq amongst the insurgents as well as the Iraqi Sunnis.

The strong opposition, led by the insurgents, to the US plans of holding the election in January 2005, which will set into motion the future democratic and intuitional process in Iraq, has manifested itself through the recent spate of bomb attacks in Baghdad, Mosul, Fallujah and Karbala. In some places the US combat elements, as well as the Iraqi security forces and those involved in the election process were targets. Between the last week of December 2004 and now, nearly 150 people were killed due to insurgent actions.

More cold water has been thrown on the election plans with the Iraqi Islamic Party, the country's largest Sunni Muslim political group, pulling out of the election because of what they term as lack of security and the difficulties of holding elections all over Iraq at the same time. Clearly, the Sunnis are not sure whether elections can actually be organised in some areas in the Sunni belt and they fear that violence in their areas will keep the voters away from the polling stations on January 30. According to the Iraqi Islamic party leader Mr. Hamid, six out of 18 provinces in Iraq would not be able to hold credible elections under the current circumstances. Even the Iraqi interim president has suggested reconsidering holding of elections in January, and in an interview with the Washington Post, Iraq's UN ambassador also proposed a delay of two or three weeks.

Surely, after the recent decimation of Fallujah, it would be foolhardy, if not downright asinine, even to attempt to motivate the Fallujans to vote. In the province of Anbar, where the violence-torn cities of Fallujah and Ramadi are located, there are only 43 candidates competing for a 41-seat provincial council. While this does not merit cancellation of the election, there being more candidates than seats, according to a Christian Science Monitor report, a new memo from the chief UN election official in Iraq indicates, "the board is carefully studying the situation to determine whether that election should go ahead as planned."

The ground reality is that the US occupation forces are hard pressed on the ground for their own security. Under the circumstances it is quite imponderable as to how they would provide security to the more than 30,000 polling centres simultaneously. With the Iraqi security forces melting away in places, the US has admitted that these elements are in no position to act and operate on their own.

The US has already touted ideas of granting special dispensation to the Sunnis should the Sunni boycott deprive the legislative assembly of a diverse character. But, as per press reports, Iraq's election body has rejected a suggestion in Washington that it "adjust" the results of next month's vote if low turnout in Sunni areas means a overwhelming Shiites majority in the new assembly. Even a predominant Shiite majority in the new assembly is not acceptable to US, and the reasons are obvious.

There is also a discrete attempt by the US to influence the upcoming elections in Iraq. While the world has been made aware, through the pliant US media, (with some honourable exceptions) of the so-called Syrian and Iranian plans to influence the elections in Iraq, the so-called free US media has hardly bothered to look at a report that exposes the sinister work of groups funded by the US administration to manipulate the upcoming elections in Iraq. This is what Lisa Croke and Brian Dominick, writing in The New Standard on December 13 had to say: "Even as the White House decries the ominous prospect of Iranian influence on the upcoming Iraqi national elections, US-funded organizations with long records of manipulating foreign democracies in the direction of Washington's interests are quietly but deeply involved in essentially every aspect of the upcoming Iraqi elections."

Reportedly, two such groups, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI), are part of a group of NGOs that have been provided over $80 million for political and electoral activities in post-Saddam Iraq. In spite of public assertions that they are nonpartisan, each has close links to the two US political parties as the names suggest, and both are, according to Croke and Dominick tied to alleged covert plans to install US-favoured regimes in Third World countries

It is a fact that manipulating elections through covert means to install pliant regimes in many parts of the globe has been a US stock in trade. Where persuasion has failed, direct intervention has been resorted to. It is thus no wonder that the Bush administration would resort to all manners of things to see a pliant Transitional National Assembly whose task it would be to legislate the future constitution of Iraq basing on which a permanent national election for the national assembly would be organised, all by the end of 2005. A tall order indeed!

Given the many factors that are bearing upon the elections in Iraq, the United Nations special envoy to Iraq, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi's statement to the Security Council, "The electoral process will be an Iraqi process conducted by Iraqis for Iraqis," has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

A successful election in Iraq may vindicate the US position on Iraq, but "no election" has the ominous possibility of perpetuation of US occupation of Iraq.

The Iraqis are now in the most unenviable position of having to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea or, as the Americans say, they are between a rock and a hard place.

The author is Editor, Defence and Strategic Affairs, The Daily Star.