December 11, 2004

Iraq - January 2005 Elections Update

This is copy of an interview I gave recently:

Q. Iraq’s elections are scheduled to take place on January 30, 2005. Given the level of violence in the country, is that realistic?

A. Security is indeed the major issue at this time. There is no doubt that the security situation has deteriorated since the announcement of the elections, and the current situation appears to limit Sunni participation in the vote. Most of the violence in the country is in the so-called “Sunni Triangle.” Limited Sunni participation will result in overwhelming Shi’a majority (the Shi’a will have a majority in any case by virtue of their numbers) and a substantial Kurdish presence in the new national assembly. An election under these circumstances will probably be regarded as illegitimate, both inside and outside the country.

The reality of a potential limited Sunni voice spurred representatives of as many as 17 political parties, including the two major Kurdish parties, to meet with highly-respected Iraqi statesman 'Adnan Pachachi (Al-Bajah Ji) and sign a petition calling for a six-month postponement of the elections. Interestingly, there were at least three sitting ministers of the interim Iraqi government present, as well as members of interim prime minister Iyad ‘Alawi’s party, the Iraq National Accord.

The Sunnis have reason to be concerned. There are two factors at work here: the boycott of the electoral process demanded by many Sunni clerics, and the deteriorating security situation in the Sunni areas of the country. The concern is that the Sunni population will either comply with the clerics’ demands for a boycott and not exercise their right to vote, or will be unable or unwilling to vote because of the precarious security situation. In either case, they will be handing the Shi’a an overwhelming majority.

To bolster security for the elections, the United States will increase its troop strength in Iraq to 150,000. How the Defense Department is going to do this raises some eyebrows. In addition to extending the rotation date of some troops already in Iraq, the Pentagon will deploy two battalions of the 82nd Airborne Division’s “ready brigade” at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The ready brigade is maintained on standby for immediate deployment anywhere in the world if necessary. Use of this resource indicates two things: the United States believes the security situation requires deployment of emergency forces, and that there are few if any other troops available for deployment to Iraq.

Q. Why doesn’t the Iraqi government want to postpone the elections?
A. Several reasons, not the least of which is legal. The interim Iraqi constitution and the United Nations resolution that approved that document both call for elections to be held no later than January 2005. There is no provision for postponing them beyond that date. Beyond the legal reasons, however, there is a practical reason – the Shi’a majority opposes it. This is a major consideration.

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 – and I think rightly – that that the Shi'a will dominate the resulting government, given their over 60 percent majority of the population. The Shi’a have been aggressively registering voters – including a real effort to register women voters - in anticipation of a vote that validates their majority status and turns it into true political power. The Shi’a have always been the “poor stepchildren” in Iraqi politics. That is about to change.

Additionally, interim prime minister Iyad ‘Alawi is reluctant to postpone the elections, as he believes doing so will provide a victory of sorts to the insurgents. He is joined in that opinion by interim Iraqi president Shaykh Ghazi Al-Yawar and American president George W. Bush. For that reason, the elections will likely be held on schedule regardless of the security situation.

Q. If legally possible, should the elections be postponed?

A. In my opinion, postponing the elections sounds like a prudent course of action. It would give 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.

Combined with the participation of ‘Adnan 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 tactical alliance with the Sunni Arabs to create a counterbalance to the Shi’a. In possibly related incidents, two Sunni clerics that support a boycott of the elections have been murdered in the northern city of Mosul (Al-Mawsil). This may signify an increasing divide in the Sunni community. Reality may be setting in - senior Sunnis are beginning to realize that there will be elections, elections which will determine the shape of the new government. Failure to participate in the process means marginalization and virtual abdication to the Shi'a majority.
Q. The Shi’a seem to be the inevitable winners in the elections. What does that mean for the country?

A. It is estimated that as many as 14 million Iraqis will be eligible to vote on January 30. The elections will determine 275 seats in the new Iraqi assembly. These seats are not allocated by geographic region, religious affiliation, political party, etc. Iraqi buy-in for the electoral process, particularly in the Shi’a and Kurdish communities is interesting.

There are 233 political “entities” that have put forth candidates for election. These entities have put forth over 600 candidates for the 275 seats. The Kurds have put forth a unified candidate list, and the Shi’a have a proposed list of candidates from a coalition backed by Ayatollah Al-Sistani, the United Iraqi Alliance. This alliance includes candidates from the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, the Islamic Dawa’ (Call) Party, the Iraqi National Congress (the party of Ahmad Chalabi) and followers of cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr.

The ascendance of Shi’a political power is not without concern on the part of the United States. Will the Shi’a strive to form a government akin to the Islamic republic in neighboring Iraq? Although Ayatollah Al-Sistani has stated he does not favor the establishment of such a religious based government, there will definitely be a Muslim character.

Q. Will the level of violence decrease after the elections?

A. The level of violence will decrease when the insurgency is defeated. It will be defeated when the majority of the Iraqi people begin to participate in their own security. Right now, they are not sure if the interim government, or the government to be elected in January, is going to survive. Once they are convinced of that – and successful elections will help, they will stop tolerating the insurgents in their midst.

Until then, the level of violence will likely remain the same.