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World Opinion Roundup by Jefferson Morley

Four Ways of Looking at Iraq's Elections

By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, January 27, 2005; 9:00 AM

You can find a lot of information on the Internet about Iraq's elections on Sunday.

You can chat with a candidate who was part of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr's armed militia. You can watch the television advertisements of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, or visit the Arabic Web site of Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali Sistani. You can check out al-Jazeera's guide to Iraqi political parties. or read the translated summaries of Iraqi political coverage in the Iraqi Press Monitor.

Iraqi political cartoon from Al-Mada, a Baghdad daily, on Jan. 19. (Iraqi Press Monitor)

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What you will not find is a lot of optimism. Few online pundits predict that the election is going to resolve the country's immense problems anytime soon. Four scenarios dominate international online commentary about the poll in which voters will select 275 members of a new National Assembly. These scenarios are not mutually exclusive and there is little consensus.

One view is that civil war will follow the election . The Baghdad daily Al-Mashriq reported last week that one top cabinet minister "warned of a possible civil war if Sunni groups do not take part in the elections." Pepe Escobar, a columnist for the Hong Kong-based Asia Times, notes that there are substantial and well-armed Sunni forces opposed to the election.

"Even Iraq's chief spook, General Mohammed Shahwani, agrees that the resistance numbers at least 40,000 hardcore fighters, with a support group of 'as many as 200,000.' Their motto is 'victory or death.' Vote or no vote, 'free' or 'secret' elections, for them any new Iraqi government will be seen as a mortal enemy," Escobar writes.

Others argue that the elections will consolidate U.S. domination of Iraq. In the words of Libya's Al-Shams daily, as quoted by the BBC, "any Iraqi voter who casts his vote will be giving it to the US president and will be giving the occupation the legitimacy it has been searching for. "

In Iran the conservative daily Jomhouri Eslami (in Farsi) says "the occupation forces are trying to . . . gain superficial popularity for their colonial projects."

"America has not hidden and does not hide its anti-Islamic sentiments, and has prepared a complex plot for the partition of Iraq and the dismembering of that country into six separate, mutually hostile parts," the Tehran daily editorialized last week.

A third view, often expressed more as a hope than a prediction, is that the elected government will ask the United States and Great Britain to withdraw their troops.

Washington and London "want to let a new government in Baghdad issue them a ticket home for their troops," claims columnist Peter Muench in the Munich daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung (in German). "Despite their rhetoric about staying the course," the Americans and the British "have realized that they have nothing more to gain there. They see their only option in withdrawal, so as to limit the damage to themselves. The damage they have inflicted on the Iraqis is limitless."

A retired military man in Jordan says "the Americans are looking for a way out to withdraw . . . because the morale of the soldiers is very low." Writing in the government-controlled Arabic al-Rai (in Arabic), retired Brig. Gen. Atif al-Rihani says U.S. military bases in the region are enough to secure American political and economic interests.

The United States faces "a scenario far different from what Pentagon dreamers had written for postinvasion Iraq," says the Arab News in Saudi Arabia. Bush "just wants to get his people back home, with enough of a 'victory' to save him blushes. US big business may cut a few big deals but the hoped-for commercial cleanup in Iraq is not going to happen. The coalition will go as soon as it decently can."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair hinted as much to London's Financial Times on Tuesday. He said the United States and Britain were prepared to agree on "timelines" with the new government for Iraqi forces to take control of peaceful parts of the country.

"Mr Blair indicated that as this handover developed it would become clearer when the coalition could leave altogether," the FT reported.

"Both ourselves and the Iraqis want us to leave as soon as possible," Blair told the paper . "The question is what is 'As soon as possible?' And the answer to that is: when the Iraqi forces have the capability to do the job."

A fourth view, not necessarily incompatible with other outcomes, is that the elections will give birth to a Shiite-dominated state. Mohammed al-Abdullah of the Baghdad daily Al-Adala says Iraq's insurgents have a "contract" with nearby Sunni Arab states to prevent the emergence of a "Shia crescent" running from Lebanon to Iraq to Iran.

Rami Khouri, executive editor of the Daily Star in Lebanon, says a Shiite-run Iraq may actually be the least bad option for the United States. A stable government viewed as having more legitimacy than the U.S. backed interim government might be able to avoid continued insurgency and civil war.

"If the U.S. military stays too long, it generates greater political resentment and armed resistance, in Iraq, the Middle East, and the world. If the U.S. Army departs too soon, it risks unleashing a civil war and possible partition of Iraq, which spells trouble for the entire region," he wrote.

"If Washington pulls off an orderly and clean election, it will create a Shiite-dominated, Iran-friendly political system that frightens many Sunni-run or secular Arab neighbors (as Jordan's America-friendly King Abdullah II has already said publicly)."

The election will not transform Iraq, it may just clarify the future of Iraq after occupation, whenever that may be.

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