Faking democracy

Published : Feb 11, 2005 00:00 IST

Election posters on a wall in Basra, 500 km from Baghdad. - ESSAM AL-SUDANI/AFP

Election posters on a wall in Basra, 500 km from Baghdad. - ESSAM AL-SUDANI/AFP

If the bloody events in the run-up to the elections are any indication, the electoral exercise being advertised as Iraq's transition to democracy seems doomed to end in failure.

DESPITE calls for a postponement, the elections in Iraq will be held on schedule. On January 30, Iraqis are expected to queue up voluntarily in front of polling booths to elect a new parliament. However, if the bloody events in the run-up to the elections are any indication, the electoral exercise being advertised as Iraq's transition to democracy seems doomed to end in failure. The aftermath of the elections could only exacerbate the wide cleavages in Iraqi society. Violence is expected to escalate on January 30. Both United States and Iraqi officials seem resigned to that eventuality.

Huge swathes of Iraq are out of bounds for the U.S.-installed government in Baghdad. The Sunni populace, which constitutes more than 20 per cent of the population, seems virtually united in its opposition to the U.S.-sponsored and supervised elections. There are no international election observers to monitor the elections. Regular international observers like former U.S. President Jimmy Carter will not be there in Iraq. No one in his right mind dares go into a battle zone - which large parts of Iraq have become. Western journalists based in Iraq write their stories from the confines of their hotel rooms. On the rare occasions they venture out, they do so as embedded journalists with the U.S. army.

Competing "fatwas" have been issued by Sunni and Shia clerics on the elections. The grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shia religious leader, has said that it is incumbent on all Iraqis to cast their votes, while Sunni religious leaders are calling on Iraqis to boycott the "sham" elections. Even Sunni politicians siding with the American occupation forces, such as the President of the interim government Ghazi al-Awar and leaders such as Adnan Pachachi, have called for a postponement of the elections, saying that in the present circumstances fair and free polls are not possible. Iraqis have been warned by insurgent groups not to venture out of their houses on polling day. From November onwards, there have been a series of dramatic suicide attacks, which claimed the lives of many U.S. and Iraqi soldiers.

Iraqi politicians participating in the polls have also been targeted. It started with the killing of Iraqi election officials in Baghdad in early November - their bodies were dragged in broad daylight on a busy street. In January, a few close aides of Ayatollah Sistani were assassinated. Suicide bombers hit a checkpoint near the headquarters of the Iraqi National Accord, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's party, in the first week of January. On January 4, the resistance forces killed the Governor of Baghdad province, Ali al Haidari. He is the seniormost Iraqi official killed since the assassination of Zahraa Othman, the former President of the Iraqi Governing Council, in May 2004. The Iraqi police force has borne the brunt of the attacks. In 2004, more than 1,300 policemen died at the hands of the insurgents.

U.S. and Iraqi officials admit that the insurgency is no longer limited to a certain area and has grown in size. Gen. Muhammad Shahwani, a senior Iraqi security official, said the Iraqi resistance now outnumbered the U.S. forces in Iraq. He put the number of the resistance forces at around 200,000. In recent months, the resistance forces have shown sophisticated tactics, picking and choosing their targets at will. The Bush administration, despite the bravado emanating from the White House, seems to be aware of the gravity of the situation. A retired four-star General, Gary A. Luck, was sent to Iraq in the first week of January to review the counter-insurgency tactics. At the same time, there is now talk in Washington of formulating early exit strategies. The debate is mainly about the timing of the military exit from the country.

Ali al-Sistani has tried to rationalise his support for the elections on the grounds that participation is crucial for getting rid of the U.S. occupation. A newly elected government, it is argued, will have the power and stature to ask the U.S. to end the occupation. He also feels that once the occupation ends there will be no justification for the insurgency to continue. A Shia-dominated government will try to appease the Sunni minority by giving it important positions in government.

Ali al-Sistani has given his blessings to the coalition called Unified Iraqi Alliance, led by Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution of Iraq (SCIRI), and Ibrahim al-Jafari, the head of the Al Dawa Party. The only prominent Sunni party that was part of the alliance patched up by Iyad Allawi, the Iraqi Islamic Party, has withdrawn from the elections. It had asked for the postponement of the polls.

Some Kurdish parties have also called for their postponement. They would like the status of Kirkuk to be decided before the polls. Irrespective of the political developments in the coming days, Kurds, who constitute around 20 per cent of the Iraqi population, will continue to exercise political autonomy in the north. They want Kirkuk to be the capital of their oil-rich "statelet".

The two main Kurdish parties have agreed on a united list of candidates of their own. Allawi's party has a list of its own. In all, 7,471 candidates are in the fray. Only a few of them have, however, bothered to introduce themselves to the voters. Many of the candidates have refused to get their names printed on campaign material for fear of retribution. Even Allawi, America's chosen one, made only a couple of campaign related appearances. On one such occasion, he was caught handing over $100 bills to media personnel.

Most Iraqis, Shias and Sunnis alike, are suspicious of the intentions of the U.S. occupation authorities. "Is there anyone who asks, `If I participate in the elections, will the occupiers leave the country?' Won't they rig the elections, and by doing so deny power to the pious? All they care for is to empower a puppet who gives his consent to the occupiers to stay in our country and gain the legitimacy rejected by the United Nations and others", the radical young cleric, Moqtada al Sadr, said recently. Though some of his supporters are running on the platform supported by Ali al-Sistani, Sadr does not seem to have any illusions about the elections. In fact, until late January, he has refused to endorse the elections or support any of the candidates in the fray. In the third week of January, his supporters were busy staging a protest in front of the Ministry of Petroleum in Baghdad, to focus attention on the acute shortage of power and fuel. Sadr's supporters may in all probability boycott the polls. Sadr City, a suburb of Baghdad, is inhabited by more than two million people.

The decision of the Election Commission to allow Iraqi expatriates to cast their votes in Jordan, Syria, Australia, U.S. and other countries, has alarmed Iraqis as well as many in the international community. According to the decision, even those who left the country more than 40 years ago can cast their votes. This will allow Iraqis having American and Israeli citizenships to vote. Those who had voted for George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon will now be theoretically able to vote for their very own candidate for President in Iraq. Iraqi Jews had migrated in large numbers to Israel. U.S. officials say that there are around a million Iraqis resident abroad. Others give a larger figure. There are only 15 million eligible voters inside Iraq. Only a fraction of them may vote. Even Allawi has admitted that "some pockets" in the country will not be able to vote.

If elections are held under the present conditions and if only Iraqis resident in the country are allowed to vote, a sweep by the Shia parties having the blessings of Ali al-Sistani is a foregone conclusion. From available indications, very few Sunni Arabs are going to vote. Four Sunni-dominated provinces in central Iraq, with around half the country's population, are wracked by insurgency. The majority of the people in these areas will not be able to vote. In the third week of January, the resistance forces carried out attacks near Basra and other parts of comparatively tranquil southern part of the country.

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