November 26, 2004

Iraq: January Elections - Or Not?

Representatives of as many as 17 political parties, including the two major Kurdish parties, met today at the home a highly-respected Iraqi statesman 'Adnan Pachachi (Al-Bajah Ji), and signed a petition calling for a six-month postponement of the national elections scheduled for January 30, 2005. In addition, at least three ministers of the interim Iraqi government were present.

The participants were the Sunnis, concerned that if elections take place in January, they will not be adequately represented in the resultant government. There are two factors at work here: the boycott demanded by many Sunni clerics, and the deteriorating security situation in the Sunni areas of the country. The concern is that the Sunnis will either comply with the demands for a boycott, or will be unable or unwilling to vote because of inadequate security.

On the surface, postponing the elections sounds like a prudent course of action. It gives coalition forces more time to battle the insurgents and improve the security situation, and the government will be able to put more trained security forces on the street to insure protection of polling places. If a postponement leads to increased participation in the elections, the resulting government will be more representative and likely more accepted. Perceived legitimacy of the new government will be critical.

That said, there will almost certainly be objections to a postponement - objections from the Shi'a majority. The Shi'a are aggressively registering voters in anticipation of a vote that validates their majority status. The moral leader of the Iraqi Shi'a, Grand Ayatollah 'Ali Al-Sistani, agreed to the elections, in fact, wanted them earlier than January. He believes that the Shi'a will dominate the resulting government, given their over 60 percent majority of the population.

In possibly related incidents, two Sunni clerics that support a boycott of the elections have been murdered in Mosul (Al-Mawsil). This may signify a divide in the Sunni community. Reality may be setting in - senior Sunnis are beginning to realize that there will be elections. The elections will determine the shape of the new government. Failure to participate in the process means marginalization and virtual abdication to the Shi'a majority.

Combined with the participation of Pachachi, the agreement of the Kurdish parties in calling for a postponement is significant. The Kurds, staunch allies of the U.S. administration, represent a bit over 20 percent of the population. They too are wary of Shi'a domination and may be entering a tacit alliance with the Sunni Arabs to create a counterbalance. The petition for postponement will certainly have to be considered by the Iraqi Elections Commission.

November 24, 2004

Iraq: After Al-Fallujah, Before the Elections….

The U.S.-Iraqi operation (Operation Fajr) in Al-Fallujah has eliminated one – arguably the major – insurgent stronghold, but there are other trouble spots that must be pacified prior to the run-up to elections scheduled for January 30, 2005. The operation in Al-Fallujah comes on the heels of the October operation to clear insurgents from Samarra’, another trouble spot in the Sunni Triangle. Immediately after the major fighting in the city subsided, American and Iraqi forces had to be dispatched to the northern city of Al-Mawsil (Mosul) to retake a number of police stations that had fallen to insurgents.

In late November, American, British and Iraqi forces began operations (Operation Plymouth Rock) in several cities in what has been named the “Triangle of Death,” the area southwest of Baghdad that borders on the Shi’a-dominated southern section of the country. Other trouble spots exist, most located in the Sunni Triangle. The two most likely venues for future coalition operations are in the two cities of Ar-Ramadi and Ba’qubah.

The immediate concern is the security situation as the country prepares for the upcoming elections. An even more immediate concern is the process by which the Iraqi electorate is defined. Once the locations of the voter registration polls are announced, they will likely become targets for insurgent attacks, just as police stations and other government offices have been. For that reason, the security situation must be dealt with now to allow voters to register.

The major issue is the availability of sufficient numbers of troops to provide that security. For each area that is secured, troops must remain there to prevent the resurgence of violence. Almost immediately after American forces seized the city of Al-Fallujah, insurgents began attempts to re-enter the city. Following each operation, fewer troops are available for future operations. While training Iraqi forces has been suggested as the answer, these forces will not be trained in time. The burden for security will fall primarily on the shoulders of the already stretched American units in the country.

After the elections, the new Iraqi leadership will have to determine how the country will be constituted. Given the long-standing and intense animosities that exist between the three major factions in the country – the Sunni Arabs, the Shi’a Arabs and the Kurds – the best solution might be a confederation of the three regions with a strong central government. That central government will be essential to maintaining the integrity of the country.