Iraqi elections

September 26, 2004

ALTHOUGH BOTH President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi asserted last week that national elections would be held in Iraq in January, neither was convincing. That's because they provided no credible assurances that they could stem the daily violence that plagues key sectors of the country -- terrorist attacks, kidnappings and suicide bombings that would certainly keep Iraqis from the polls. In speeches before the United Nations and at the White House, both leaders offered a blue-sky view of conditions in Iraq that clashes with the scenes on America's television screens.

What was needed was not puffed-up pronouncements but a sober assessment of how best to ensure that Iraqis in all parts of the country and from each of its three central ethnic groups have a chance to participate in the election.

The electoral plan under way is based on a proportional form of government -- Iraqis will not vote for individual candidates but for political parties. If one of the country's three ethnic groups were to be disenfranchised, the results would be skewed in favor of the other two. Such an outcome would not only discredit the election but also enflame divisions between Sunni, Shiite and Kurd -- and worse, threaten the stability of the country.

Some U.S. and U.N. officials have raised concerns about the ability to hold elections amid the violence racking areas of the country. The top Shiite cleric in Iraq has added his concern about guaranteeing full representation of Shiites, the majority ethnic group that suffered greatly during Saddam Hussein's rule, in a new government. Reports indicate that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani might withdraw his support from elections if his people aren't fully represented.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Allawi should quit the rosy pronouncements. They must do everything they can to bring about a credible election, not just vow that elections will take place even if they are imperfect. When he addressed the United Nations, Mr. Bush should have publicly appealed to the international community to offer any assistance to bring about a free, secure election, because the Iraqi people deserve nothing less after months of war, violence and unrest. Overtures must be made to Ayatollah al-Sistani, the aging, respected cleric who defused the standoff between U.S. troops and followers of a radical, younger cleric in the holy city of Najaf last month.

Carlos Valenzuela, the U.N. official overseeing the Herculean task of planning the Iraqi election, recognized the difficulty of staging the elections without security. But he has experienced similar conditions in places such as East Timor, Angola, Mozambique and Liberia, and he is pushing ahead in Iraq. In the months ahead, Mr. Valenzuela will be the man to ask about the feasibility of holding a national election in Iraq. Until then, the incumbent president and the sitting prime minister should do all that they can to bring it about.

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