Elections in Iraq

Thursday, December 15, 2005

THE IRAQI parliamentary election campaign has offered welcome evidence that the country could yet find stability under a democratic political system. Thousands of candidates and dozens of slates have been vigorously campaigning for the 275 seats in what will be Iraq's first full-fledged legislature. The country's most pressing issues, from the devolution of government power to the human rights violations of the current Shiite-led government, have been hotly debated. In contrast to January's election of an interim National Assembly, a large turnout is expected today in the Sunni-populated areas of Iraq where the armed insurgency is based. Unlike October's constitutional referendum, the parliamentary vote inherently strengthens the cause of a unified Iraq.

The election, however, will not provide a turning point toward stability and American success, as President Bush forthrightly acknowledged Monday. "Iraqis," he said, "still have more difficult work ahead." Once the voting is over, sectarian leaders will return to a critical struggle over the distribution of power and resources in their country, one that will be waged partly in the new parliament, partly in high-stakes negotiations over amendments to the constitution and partly on the battlefield, where U.S. and Iraqi government troops will continue to combat some of the same Sunni forces that this week are mobilizing voters. By the middle of next year, Iraqis may forge a political accord that will isolate extremists and consolidate a democratic state, or they could split the country into pieces and ordain a prolonged civil war. The outcome will depend in part on the results of today's elections, but also on whether the Bush administration is more effective in its diplomatic and military performance than it has been over the past two years.

From the U.S. point of view, the best election result would be a substantial weakening of the Shiite religious coalition that received 48 percent of the vote in January's election and has dominated the interim government. Its leading party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, is closely linked to Iran; with Iranian encouragement, it is pressing to create a nine-province Shiite "region" in the south of Iraq. With its own constitution and security forces, this ministate would be ruled by clerics and would control Iraq's largest oil fields. Meanwhile, the Supreme Council's leadership threatens a merciless war to wipe out Sunni resistance in Baghdad and western Iraq. Already, it is using its control of the Interior Ministry to set up torture chambers and death squads staffed by its own militia.

The alternatives to the Shiite coalition include secular Iraqi parties, such as those of former prime minister Ayad Allawi and former exile Ahmed Chalabi; two Sunni coalitions; and a Kurdish alliance that is focused on preserving the Kurdish ministate that already exists in northern Iraq. While none of these is likely to defeat the Shiite parties, they could force compromises in the Supreme Council's dangerous agenda. The Shiite coalition itself could splinter, as some of its members don't favor a Shiite region. At best, a broad coalition including Sunni parties could form the next government. But at least, Shiite leaders must be induced to moderate or abandon their regional plan and offer the Sunni community an equitable place in the new Iraq, rather than trying to impose a new order by force.

That is where Mr. Bush will be tested. In the past two weeks the president has delivered a series of speeches that have laid out a complex strategy for Iraq; he has also discussed the political and military situation with a welcome candor. On Monday he conceded that the constitutional process "did not unify Iraqis" and said that the new Iraqi government would face challenges "in four critical areas," including "forming an inclusive Iraqi government" and "encouraging Iraqi reconciliation." While he can't determine the election results, Mr. Bush can use the full weight of U.S. leverage to press the major Iraqi parties, beginning with the Supreme Council, to choose compromise and a unified Iraq over sectarianism and civil war. Should the administration fail in this objective, there may be no Iraq that American troops can defend.

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