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Vote under occupation

Print edition : Feb 25, 2005 T+T-

The question of legitimacy of the January 30 elections in Iraq comes under sharp focus even as the Bush administration claims "victory" for democracy in the country.

in Manama

CITING the participation of millions of Iraqis in the January 30 elections, the Bush administration was quick to claim victory. Soon after the polling stations closed down, President George Bush said the elections were a "resounding success" and "Iraqis have shown their commitment to democracy".

The Americans have been projecting the elections as a referendum that legitimises their invasion and occupation of Iraq. American officials have touted the high voter turnout to reinforce their point.

Even before the voting had closed, the Iraqi Electoral Commission announced that a 72 per cent turnout was recorded. Within hours, it backtracked. In a statement, the Commission said that "these figures (of 72 per cent polling) are only very rough, word-of-mouth estimates gathered informally from the field. It will take some time for the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq to release accurate figures on turnout." But Commission spokesman Farid Ayar indicated that around eight million people, or about 60 per cent of the registered voters, might have voted.

While the Iraqi Shias in the south and the Kurds in the north voted in large numbers, the estimates of voter turnout are questionable. International journalists were permitted to enter only five polling stations in Baghdad. Four of these were in the Shia neighbourhood where a high percentage of voting was expected.

The Electoral Commission's estimate of around 60 per cent polling is also misleading. The figure is based on the assumption that eight million out of the 14 million eligible voters cast their ballots. However, the figure of 14 million itself is erroneous. Iraq has 14 million registered voters, but the actual number of eligible voters stands at 18 million. Similarly, the claim of a very high voter turnout among Iraqi exiles does not stand scrutiny. Out of about 1.2 million Iraqis abroad, only 280,000 were registered voters. Among these, several thousands did not vote.

In any case, a high voter turnout does not legitimise alien occupation. For instance, the voter turnout in the 1967 presidential election under U.S. occupation in South Vietnam was even higher. Writing in The New York Times on September 4, 1967, Peter Grose reported: "United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in South Vietnam's presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting. According to reports from Saigon, 83 per cent of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened by the Vietcong." The article added: "A successful election has long been seen as the keystone in President Johnson's policy of encouraging the growth of constitutional processes in South Vietnam... . The purpose of the voting was to give legitimacy to the Saigon government..."

Contrary to American perceptions, most Iraqis voted not because they supported the occupation. The Shias appeared at the polling stations because they have historically been denied power in Iraq despite their majority status inside the country. In a community that is highly religious, the top Shia spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, who issued a fatwa asking his followers to vote, contributed significantly to the high voter turnout. Writing after the elections, independent journalist Dahr Jamail noted: "Every Iraqi I have spoken with who voted explained that they believe the National Assembly which will be formed soon will signal an end to the occupation. And they expect the call for a withdrawing of foreign forces in their country to come sooner rather than later. This causes one to view the footage of cheering, jubilant Iraqis in a different light."

Many people voted also because they desire a better life, which includes an end to daily violence, the availability of clean water, electricity and decent schooling for their children. Robert Jensen, a West Asia specialist who teaches at the University of Texas told Frontline: "Most Iraqis understand the invasion was about extending and deepening U.S. control over the region, and they want the United States gone."

Notwithstanding the Anglo-American spin on the polls, the legitimacy of the January 30 elections has been openly questioned both in terms of international law and on grounds of the methodology that was adopted for their conduct.

The American academician Phyllis Bennis points out: "The Hague Convention of 1907, to which the U.S. is a signatory, prohibits the occupying power from creating any permanent changes in the government of the occupied territory. These elections (in Iraq) were arranged under an electoral law and by an electoral commission installed and backed by the occupying power."

Besides, other fundamentals associated with free and fair polling were ignored in the case of Iraq. Voters did not know the names of the candidates in advance because of the violence. Three days before polling, the entire country was shut down. Curfews and shoot-at-sight orders were in place, the airport was closed, and the borders were sealed.

Unlike in Afghanistan and Palestine, there were no international monitors in Iraq. The Canadian-led team of international election "assessors", who had hastily made the claim that the elections met international standards, was not in Iraq but based in Jordan, more than 1,000 km away.

The U.S.-based Carter Centre, which has vast experience in monitoring elections across the globe, declined to participate. Nevertheless, its spokesman observed that the Iraqi elections did not meet any of the key conditions for determining the legitimacy of an election. Elections, according to the Centre, must allow voters to cast their ballots in a safe and secure environment. Candidates must have access to voters, and a freely chosen independent election commission needs to be appointed. Besides, voters should be able to vote without the fear of reprisals.

While the elections will put in place a new transitional Assembly and a government, it is unlikely to empower the elected Iraqis in any significant way. Iraq will continue to be "governed" by the U.S.-imposed Transitional Administrative Law, as only a very large majority in the transitional Assembly can amend it. Prior to his departure, former American administrator of Iraq Paul Bremer had appointed pro-U.S. chiefs to various bodies, including the Commission on Public Integrity, the Communication and Media Commission and the Council of Judges for a five-year term. The procedure to dismiss these individuals is cumbersome.

Elections are also unlikely to diminish the influence of the more than 40,000 American civilian and military "advisers" who have been deputed to the Iraqi ministries. In fact, it is likely that these advisers will "train" the new set of officials that will be appointed in these ministries.

As the dust begins to settle on the elections, there is an apprehension that the transitional government will rubber-stamp policies that are tailor-made to suit U.S. commercial interests. The current interim Finance Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, who could become the new Deputy President or Prime Minister, announced recently his support for the complete privatisation of Iraq's oil industry. Jamail, in one of his write-ups, said that on December 22, Mahdi told journalists and industry specialists at the National Press Club in Washington that he favoured the passage of a new law that would open Iraq's National Oil Company to private foreign investment. Foreign companies, he said, would be allowed to tap as well as sell Iraqi oil.

Mahdi's stance has attracted considerable comment as it is seen as an indicator of the approach that an influential section of elected Shia leaders may adopt towards Iraq's future development. This is because Mahdi belongs to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a key group that is likely to acquire a position of influence after the elections. The SCIRI is part of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), which Ayatollah Sistani helped form. Under the UIA umbrella, the SCIRI has the Iraqi National Congress, led by Ahmed Chalabi, known for providing faulty information that was used to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq, as its partner.

Notwithstanding the elections, there are no signs that the U.S. occupation could end anytime soon. In his State of the Union address, Bush said: "We will not set an artificial timetable for leaving Iraq because that would embolden the terrorists and make them believe they can wait us out." In Iraq, interim President Ghazi al Yawer, who has been critical of the U.S. occupation on several occasions in the past, has described the demand for an end to the occupation as "complete nonsense". There are also other signs that the U.S. intends to maintain its military presence inside Iraq well into future. There have been reports that the U.S. is already holding on to four permanent military bases in Iraq and has begun the construction of at least a few more.

With the majority of Sunnis, Iraq's second largest community, boycotting the polls and spearheading the resistance, the chances are that the violence targeting the American occupation and its supporters may intensify in the coming days. With the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni grouping, describing the polls as illegitimate, the signs for a flare-up are already there. In a statement issued on February 2, it said: "The coming National Assembly and government that will emerge will not possess the legitimacy to enable them to draft the constitution or sign security or economic agreements." The group warned the United Nations and the international community of the danger in granting the elections legitimacy "because this will open a door of evil". It said that all Iraqis were waiting for an opportunity "to hold comprehensive, free and just elections that have legitimacy...after the withdrawal of the occupation".

Simultaneously, Al Qaeda condemned the elections and advocated a religious war in order to reform the Islamic world. A written statement, said to have been the transcript of an audio-tape recording of a speech by Al Qaeda number two Ayman al Zawahiri, warned that "reform can't be achieved under governments installed by the occupier through rigged elections conducted under the supervision of the United Nations and protected by B-52s and Apache helicopter rockets".