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Don't Postpone Elections

Tuesday, November 30, 2004; Page A18

THERE IS reason to worry that Iraqi elections scheduled for Jan. 30 will be crippled by violence and boycotts and will worsen rather than alleviate the country's civil conflict. If Iraq's minority Sunni population is effectively excluded from the voting, and from the 275-member assembly that is to choose a new government and draft a constitution, chances of ending the Sunni-led insurgency will dim; so will the possibility that Iraq will establish itself as a democracy that distributes power among its various communities through ballots rather than force. It nevertheless would be a mistake for the interim government of Ayad Allawi to respond to the danger by postponing elections, as 17 political parties urged last week. Instead, that government ought to be insisting that the United States, the United Nations and Iraq's neighbors commit more troops, technicians and aid for a January vote.

Why not delay? There are legal reasons: Iraq's transitional law provides for January elections, and there is no mechanism for changing it. To create one would invite debate over other crucial provisions calling for a constitution, its ratification by referendum, and another round of elections by the end of 2005. There are also political calculations: Some of the parties calling for a postponement, and their sympathizers in Sunni-led Arab governments, undoubtedly would prefer that elections never be held in Iraq -- because these would empower Iraq's Shiite majority or because they would set a precedent that both of Iraq's neighbors would be pressed to follow.

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The most compelling reasons to stick to the January date, however, are practical. Iraq's Shiite leaders appear dead set against any delay, and for the government or the Bush administration to oppose them would invite chaos in the biggest swath of Iraq, which is now relatively peaceful. Delay would be a victory for the insurgents, just when they have suffered an important battlefield defeat in Fallujah. Rather than leading to the negotiations between the government and Sunni leaders that proponents say they want, a postponement is more likely to prompt an escalation of the insurgency coupled with demands that U.S. forces leave Iraq before any vote is held.

It may not be possible to persuade many Sunni leaders to participate in a system that will strip them of the Baath Party's hold on Iraq. But the best chance of doing so is for the government to make clear to those leaders that the elections -- and the construction of Iraq's new order -- will go forward with or without them. That means continued U.S. and Iraqi military operations to clear insurgents from Sunni towns, but also stepped-up civil efforts to make elections possible. Many more police and troops -- both Iraqi and American -- are needed to ensure security around the country by the end of January. So are more election technicians and monitors, if not from the United Nations, then from elsewhere. Mr. Allawi should aggressively appeal for them. He should also consider whether to set aside places on his own electoral ticket, or in the new assembly, for Sunni representatives, even if they do not or cannot step forward in the coming weeks. But he should not listen to those who propose postponing the only peaceful means for establishing an Iraqi government with real authority.

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