In Iraq, chance for credible vote is slipping away

Bush administration, populace have much riding on Jan. election

September 15, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Chances that Iraq will be able to hold credible national elections in January, as promised by its interim leaders and the United States, are rapidly slipping away as insurgent violence sets back preparations and keeps parts of the country out of reach of election organizers, according to a growing number of regional specialists.

Elections for a national assembly are key to the American strategy for transforming Iraq into a democracy that will serve as a model for reforms throughout the greater Middle East and are widely seen as a measure of U.S. success in stabilizing the country. Many Iraqis also are eager to vote as a way of gaining control over their destiny.

But analysts said these plans are looking increasingly unrealistic amid a rising death toll from insurgents, such as yesterday's car bombing in Baghdad and a shooting attack on Iraqi police that together claimed at least 59 lives.

"Most of the experts I deal with agree that it would be better for them [the elections] to be postponed," said Abdulwahab Alkebsi, Middle East program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy.

Although White House spokesman Scott McClellan insisted yesterday that "we believe elections will go forward in January," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has begun to waver from the administration's optimistic line.

"Well, we'll see whether there will be or won't be," Powell told Reuters when asked whether credible, legitimate elections could be held by January. "We're still confident there can be and we're working toward that end."

The elections are supposed to be an important interim step in Iraq's transformation from dictatorship to full democracy. They would pick a transitional national assembly, which would write a new Iraqi constitution to serve as the basis for elections for a permanent government by the end of next year.

But preparations have been dogged by problems, most of them involving security. The United Nations, which was supposed to assume a leading role, has been unable to field more than a skeleton staff in Baghdad out of fears for the staff members' safety.

Describing the task of setting up elections as "daunting," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a recent report, "The security environment continues to pose a very profound challenge for the successful achievement of these goals." Fearing for its safety, he said, Iraq's election commission has adopted a "deliberate low profile," hampering efforts to make the Iraqi public aware of what it is doing.

Ray Salvatore Jennings, a Georgetown University professor who specializes in studying the rebuilding of war-torn societies, said critical preparations are lagging in setting up polling places and planning security for voters.

"I don't see how they could be held under current conditions," he said.

The so-called Sunni Triangle remained so violent that a U.S. commander, Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, and Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, have suggested that certain towns and cities within it, such as Fallujah, be bypassed in the elections.

"If for any reason 300,000 people cannot have an election, cannot vote because terrorists decide so, then frankly 300,000 people ... is not going to alter 25 million people voting," Allawi said in an interview with several newspapers late last week.

The problems are deeper than just setting up the mechanics and securing polling places. U.N. officials acknowledge that the August national conference, intended to be a steppingstone to the elections, was not as representative of Iraq's population as it should have been.

And for logistical reasons, the United Nations and the electoral commission have decided that instead of electing representatives from local districts, the members of the assembly would be picked on a proportional basis, with political parties choosing the individuals who will fill the seats.

This strengthens the hand of party leaders at the expense of developing leaders responsible to local constituencies, according to Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, who was an adviser to U.S. occupation authorities.

Combined with the possibility that parts of the Sunni Triangle won't be able to vote, this system of proportional representation could mean that the minority Sunnis, who already fear that they will be stripped of power in a democratic Iraq, would end up being under-represented in the new assembly.

"This will confirm Sunnis in what they suspect - that there's nothing for them in the present system," said Marina Ottaway, a democracy specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Rather than proceed with national elections, Georgetown's Jennings suggests devising staggered regional elections once parts of the country become safe enough to hold them.

Despite the problems, a decision to postpone Iraqi elections won't be easily made, and not just because it could be a political embarrassment to President Bush, who has made Iraq's progress toward democracy a central campaign theme.

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