Yet another “historic day” will dawn in war-weary Iraq on January 30. As interim prime minister Iyad Allawi told Iraqi television viewers, “For almost the first time since the creation of Iraq, Iraqis will participate in choosing their representatives in complete freedom.” Not to be outdone, President George W. Bush used the first news conference of his second term to herald the “grand moment in Iraqi history” that the world will witness when Iraqis go to the polls.

The US-sponsored state-building process in Iraq has seen a succession of days pronounced historic by the Bush administration and its favored Iraqi politicians. The capture of Saddam Hussein on December 16, 2003 was to have scotched the snake of the Iraqi insurgency. The promulgation of the Transitional Administrative Law on March 8, 2004 was to have supplied Iraq with a “draft constitution” respected as such by the population. The “handover of sovereignty” on June 28, 2004 was to have reassured Iraqis about the long-term intentions of the occupying superpower, and, again, diminished the ferocity of the insurgency. In all cases, the expectations attached to these “historic days” had more to do with managing Iraqi and American public opinion than with political realities.

The national elections scheduled for January 30 are indeed a watershed moment for Iraq, and the palpable enthusiasm of prospective Iraqi voters in the face of equally palpable physical danger is not to be dismissed. Yet ambient assumptions about the significance of the contests are facile and faith-based. For the rhetorical purposes of the White House, the elections are an end in themselves, another “firmly planted flag of liberty” left on a “forward march of freedom” routed through Kabul, Ramallah and—perhaps—parts unknown. On the ground in Iraq, the elections will influence but not decide the crucial debates swirling around the country’s political future, chiefly the shape of the permanent constitution and the duration of the US-led occupation.

No Peace, No Problem

Confident of their eventual success, US officials and outside supporters of the US project in Iraq stick to the narrative of “historic days.” They remind critics and skeptics that while no landmark in the state-building process has ushered in the promised peace and stability, neither has the process been derailed. The January 30 elections will proceed, despite multiple calls for postponement, as stipulated by the Transitional Administrative Law and UN Security Council Resolution 1546. Several prominent Iraqi politicians who had called for delaying the polls, notably the leaders of the two major Kurdish parties and Adnan Pachachi, foreign minister in the government overthrown by the 1968 Baathist coup, threw their hats into the ring once they realized that Bush and Allawi were determined to hold the elections on schedule. The interim president, Ghazi al-Yawir, Allawi’s defense minister, Hazem Shaalan, and the Iraqi ambassador to the UN have all suggested delays, only to be overruled.

US confidence about Iraq reflects the Bush foreign policy team’s belief in the self-evident moral force of US “leadership” and their colder calculation that where the US leads, most weaker parties will follow. At a Brookings Institution forum on January 25, neo-conservative pundit William Kristol expressed this mindset best when he noted, a bit smugly, that in Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq elections are happening because those territories are occupied.

The Disenfranchised

The US-sponsored process has indeed continued apace, but the end of the process is not necessarily a secure and stable Iraq. In their zeal to remake the Iraqi political order, particularly with the blanket de-Baathification policy, the US and its Iraqi proxies effectively disenfranchised swathes of the urban, mostly secular professional and managerial classes who worked in the old Iraqi state. Charges of nepotism and sectarian, ethnic or tribal hiring bias have dogged the rebuilding of the ministries since the handover of “sovereignty.” The US set the stage for these suspicions by agreeing with its Iraqi proxies to allocate seats in the Iraqi Governing Council and cabinet in the interim government according to a strict sectarian-ethnic calculus.

Meanwhile, with their ham-fisted counter-insurgency tactics, the US and its allies added fuel to the flames by severely alienating a large percentage of the Sunni Arab population. Beginning with the coinage of the term “Sunni triangle” to describe the initial stronghold of the insurgency, the US has steadily convinced Sunni Arabs who have no relation to the rebellion that they are the enemy. “They’ve equated Sunnis with terrorists,” one Sunni Arab in Baghdad told the Washington Times. “Under Saddam, one of out 1,000 Iraqis was a salafi. Now it’s 100 out of 1,000, all because of the Americans.” The Bush administration has never grasped the import of the indiscriminate detentions of thousands of Iraqis—many of them picked up in sweeps through the “Sunni triangle”—that exploded into global consciousness with the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal. The International Red Cross estimated that 70-90 percent of the detainees were innocent of any involvement in the insurgency. As January 30 approaches, Abu Ghraib is reportedly full once more, again as a result of sweeps in predominantly Sunni Arab areas.

Because their community has borne the brunt of the war after the “major combat,” Sunni Arab figures have been most visible in their denunciation of the January 30 exercise as illegitimate. The Iraqi Islamic Party, whose leader served in the Iraqi Governing Council when Paul Bremer was US proconsul, has called for a boycott. Another important Islamist grouping, the Muslim Scholars’ Board, has done the same, along with some small independent nationalist parties. The boycotters have resisted pressure to reverse their stance, with Harith al-Dhari, head of the Muslim Scholars’ Board, rebuffing the personal overtures of US Ambassador John Negroponte.

The boycott calls appear to be effective. Only 32 percent of Sunni Arab respondents in a survey run by the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) in mid-December 2004 said they were “very likely” to vote. A slightly more recent poll conducted by the Washington-based International Republican Institute put the number at “nearly 50 percent,” but no one expects the Sunni Arab turnout to be close to the 80 percent rate predicted in predominantly Shiite Arab and Kurdish areas. The threat of election-day violence is a major reason for the difference, but not the only one: the INR poll found that just 12 percent of Sunni Arab respondents believe the elections will be “completely free and fair,” as opposed to 52 percent of the Arab Shia.

Risky Bet

Dhari and other Muslim Scholars’ Board leaders are always quick to point to their loose coalition with Shiite clerics and secular nationalist groupings to bolster their nationalist credentials. The election results may shed some light on the strength of these claims, though it will likely be impossible to know if it was fear, an anti-occupation boycott, doubts about the fairness of the election or all of the above that kept voters away. The stock line of Bush and Allawi that the specter of election-day violence threatens to depress turnout in “only four of 18 provinces” is misleading, at best. As intelligence data analyzed for the New York Times shows, it is Baghdad—Iraq’s sprawling, populous capital—where the most “insurgent attacks” occurred in the 30 days ending January 22. The heavily Sunni Arab province of Salah al-Din north of Baghdad has seen the second highest number of attacks, but the incidents have been spread throughout the country. Two thirds of Iraqis live in a district that has witnessed an attack over the past month. These numbers illustrate why the persistent description of the “Sunni triangle” as “the heart of the insurgency” has alienated many Sunni Arabs.

The boycotters’ strategy hinges on their bet that the US-backed political transition will founder on the rocks of Iraqi hostility to occupation and frustrated Iraqi yearning for normalcy. A poll commissioned by the outgoing Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in mid-May 2004 found 1 percent of respondents who felt that “coalition forces” were the factor that “contributed most to their security.” Fifty-five percent said they would feel safer if the US-led forces left. Those numbers help to explain why the election boycotters—despite the potential costs to their political fortunes—chose to dissociate themselves from an election process partly designed by the occupying power. Any Iraqi government brought to power through such a process, they feel, cannot escape the taint of association with the occupier. The new government will also inherit the nagging shortages of jobs, electricity, fuel and pure water, and the overabundance of violent crime, that have afflicted Iraqi cities since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. These factors also appear to have pushed Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who commands a following among the poor and working-class Shia of East Baghdad, to issue this statement: “I personally will stay away [from the elections] until the occupiers stay away from them, and until our beloved Sunnis participate in them. Otherwise they will lack legitimacy and democracy.”

Given the enormous toll in Iraqi lives exacted by insurgent attacks, however, the boycotters’ and abstainers’ bet is risky. The May 2004 CPA poll finding 55 percent of Iraqis effectively blaming the US occupation for the country’s lack of security did not find a majority calling for an immediate withdrawal of US troops. Attitudes toward the occupation retain this seeming schizophrenia, because of deep popular distrust of the motivations of ancien regime and salafi elements in the insurgency, not to mention revulsion at some of the guerrillas’ tactics.

Time will tell if the boycotters calculated correctly that the new Iraqi government will soon lose the confidence of the people and that, in the long run, their non-participation will win them the reputation they seek as the genuine nationalist opposition. The Iraqi Islamist Party has hedged its bets by leaving its slate of candidates on the ballot, and Sadrist candidates have not withdrawn their names, either. It is clear, however, that the differential degrees of trust in the elections reflect a sectarian rift in the country. The US-backed state-building process has already widened this divide. The elections could widen the gap further, particularly if the boycotters were wrong about the new government’s popular support.

Inflated Islamist Strength?

Sectarian politics, or more accurately perceptions thereof, are the biggest reason why the outcome of the elections is in fact crucial for Iraq’s future. For the majority Shiite Arab population, the elections are an opportunity to dominate the assembly that will fill the ministries and appoint a committee to draft the permanent constitution. Most Western commentary assumes that the 228-member list of the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), put together by a committee linked to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, will emerge with a majority of seats. While Sistani has not explicitly endorsed the list, he has issued a fatwa (religious injunction) instructing all Iraqis that voting is a religious duty, and those who assume that Shiites will vote solely along sectarian lines put two and two together. The corollary assumption is that a UIA victory will empower the Shiite religious parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Da‘wa, whose delegates would then seek to enshrine Islam as the sole source of legislation under the permanent constitution or bow to the wishes of Tehran about Iraqi foreign policy. Neither assumption is necessarily warranted.

Rampant insecurity, together with the Sunni Arab and nationalist boycott, certainly favors the chances of the UIA to win big. But the Arab Shia may surprise observers with their electoral preferences. Local candidates unaffiliated with the UIA may capitalize on long-standing ambivalence toward the formerly exiled religious parties in towns like Basra, Dhi Qar, Kut and even Najaf. In particular, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its Badr Brigades are regarded by many Shia as too close to Iran. In Basra, as Anthony Shadid reported in the January 25 Washington Post, residents are disaffected after over a year of SCIRI government. The Islamists have been no better at restoring basic services on the municipal level than the US Army Corps of Engineers and Bechtel at the national level.

The religious parties’ true strength has been inflated in the eyes of observers by dint of their proximity to power. Local politicians and the secular lists of Allawi, Iraqi Communist Party head Hamid Majid Musa and others could mount a strong challenge to the UIA, in majority-Shiite and mixed areas alike, on election day. Commentators will be tempted to portray a good showing for Allawi’s list as evidence that Iraqis prefer a strongman, but it would just as credibly be evidence that secular-minded urbanites, of all religions, dislike the Islamists. Even though Allawi’s slate is exile-dominated, many urban dwellers who suffered through the sanctions decade only to be “de-Baathified” after the invasion may consider the interim prime minister the least of the evils on offer.

Strategic Dilemmas

Adding the probable 15-20 percent vote for the Kurdish parties’ list to the split Shiite vote produces a diverse National Assembly and cabinet—one whose strategic dilemmas will be quite similar to those Allawi has faced. Should the UIA get its hoped-for sweep, whether due to low urban turnout or because secular Shiite voters are persuaded by its pledge not to appoint clerics to ministerial posts, it will probably gravitate toward pragmatism in power.

Already one salient difference between Allawi and the UIA leadership has evaporated. The interim prime minister is portrayed as Negroponte’s puppet when he issues statements to the effect that a US troop withdrawal would be “both reckless and dangerous.” But in the week before the elections, the UIA quietly changed the second plank in its platform from “setting a timetable for the withdrawal of multinational forces from Iraq” to “the Iraq we want is capable of protecting its borders and security without depending on foreign forces.” To date, the US has built in Iraq a fragile state whose stewards are afraid they cannot survive in power without an American praetorian guard. The US military, which recently announced operational plans to maintain well over 100,000 soldiers in Iraq through the end of 2006, shares their trepidation.

Indeed, the Bush administration has dimmed the sunny predictions of 2004 that the elections will dampen the ongoing guerrilla war. Though true believers inside and outside the administration continue to insist that the US faces an “anti-Iraqi insurgency, not an anti-American one,” the reality is more complex. Ancien regime and salafi elements swim in a sea of nationalism, anger at maltreatment by US forces and profound alienation from the post-Saddam political order, as well as joblessness and the breakdown of basic law and order. In themselves, the January 30 elections offer no solution to this political crisis.

Nor do they bridge the sectarian divide exacerbated by the guerrillas’ execution-style killings of mostly Shiite police recruits and the corresponding Shiite quiet during the devastating US assault on Falluja in November 2004. To the extent that “successful” elections are presented as a victory for the Arab Shia at the expense of Sunni Arab, Islamist and nationalist abstainers, the contests could inflame rather than heal sectarian tensions, with a resented US occupying force right in the middle.
CORRECTION: The e-mail version of this article wrongly implied that Bush and Allawi said voting would be safe in only four Iraqi provinces. They said it would be safe in 14.

How to cite this article:

Chris Toensing "Another “Historic Day” Looms in Iraq," Middle East Report Online, January 28, 2005.

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