The people's choice

January 25, 2004

ONE WHITE HOUSE nightmare, and it's a plausible one, goes this way: In the face of growing pressure, Washington backs down and allows Iraqi elections to go forward - maybe not by June 30, as some would like, but within a few months, and in particular before the American vote in November - and then they're so horribly bungled that Iraqi and world opinion is outraged at the mess.

An alternative nightmare: Washington persists in putting off elections on the grounds that Iraq is not ready, and this leads Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the Shiite leader, to denounce Americans as colonialists and tell his well-organized and numerous followers to stop cooperating with the occupiers, thus ending U.S. hopes of establishing a peaceful and legitimate transition - and all this comes to a climax in the month or so before Election Day back home.

It's a choose-your-poison sort of dilemma.

At the moment, Washington is pinning its hopes on a United Nations assessment that could take place within the next few weeks, and that might persuade Ayatollah al-Sistani that it would simply be too difficult to hold elections by the scheduled June 30 hand-over of sovereignty. But pushing off elections until the end of 2005 - which is the current American plan, and one the ayatollah categorically rejects - looks less and less viable.

Elections, in themselves, do not equal democracy. Iraq has a long way to go before it builds the framework of a democratic society, and snap elections are not necessarily the best way to start.

By the same token, though, the United States cannot foster a democratic Iraq by completely ignoring public opinion - and it has become abundantly clear that a very large number of Iraqis want to have a vote.

On Friday, the Pentagon's own favorite, Ahmad Chalabi, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, said he supported early elections. The intricate caucus plan favored by Washington - in which hand-picked elders would choose a vaguely representative council - is, Mr. Chalabi said, a recipe for instability.

His remarks show how Iraq has reached a point where standing up to America is a way of establishing political bona fides. But they also provide Washington some cover to change plans - if everybody wants an early vote, even the secular Mr. Chalabi, then it won't look so much like caving in to Ayatollah al-Sistani.

A problem here, naturally, is that everybody does not want an early vote. A group of Sunni clerics, who fear Shiite domination, say that no elections held while the United States is still occupying Iraq can be legitimate. And make no mistake - even with a smooth transfer of sovereignty between now and November, the United States will still have 100,000 or so troops in Iraq and an embassy of perhaps 3,000 people. Americans are in for the long haul. The question of elections is not going to be the last headache - or nightmare - by any means.

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