Zarqawi's declaration of war fuels fear of violence in run-up to poll

Posted in Iraq | 24-Jan-05 | Author: Patrick Cockburn| Source: The Independent

Iraqis walk near a sign in Baghdad featuring al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and urging Iraqis report any information they have about 'terrorists'.

A week from the day when their country goes to the polls, Iraqis say they are frightened. One potential voter said fearfully: "Baghdad will surely burn during the election days. I think more about my own survival than I do about the election campaign."

Many from Baghdad have already left for Jordan, Syria and Dubai. Others abroad on business or the haj pilgrimage are delaying their return. Students at the universities in the capital say they will stay at home until after the election. Some government officials are refusing to go to work.

The election on 30 January is portrayed as a turning point for Iraq but few in the capital believe that there will be any diminution of violence. Many say the poll will serve only to crystallise differences between the three main Iraqi communities: the Shia, Sunni and Kurds.

The government has announced rigorous security measures on the day of the elections with curfews and checkpoints. But these measures are unlikely to be more successful than in the past in deterring suicide bombers. It is difficult to see how they can be stopped from entering polling booths and blowing themselves up.

Candidates in the election were denounced yesterday as "demi-idols" and voters as "infidels" by Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, the militant Islamic leader. He said on a website: "We have declared a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology."

The election is not likely to have much effect on the uprising against the US occupation because the rebels are almost all drawn from the five million-strong Sunni community which forms about a fifth of the Iraqi population of 25 million. Few Sunni are likely to vote. The US, which announced plans yesterday to augment its occupation with robots armed with machineguns, seeks to present the insurgency as the work of a few isolated fanatics such as Zarqawi. But in Sunni areas it is widely supported and this support shows no sign of diminishing.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the influential Shia religious leader, has demanded an election ever since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. While opposed to sectarianism, he wants the 15 to 16 million Shia to win a majority in the 275-member National Assembly and end the centuries-old political marginalisation of the Iraqi Shia.

The United Iraqi List, forged under the auspices of Ayatollah Sistani, is expected to win the most votes. It is an unwieldy group combining Islamic parties such as the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Dawa party alongside secularists such as the Iraqi National Congress of Ahmed Chalabi, once the chosen candidate of the neoconservatives in the Pentagon. The leading members of this list are Shia but they have little else in common.

Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister, leading the Iraqi List, may do better than originally expected. This is partly because he may get the vote of secular Iraqis, terrified of the Sunni resistance and fearful of the Shia religious parties. Ghazi al-Yawer, the interim President, may also do well as a respected if ineffectual Sunni leader.

The Kurdistan Alliance List combines the main Kurdish parties and will be the third big winner. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party are much the best organised parties in the country. After decades of rebellion they command powerful military forces. Their support is also essential for the US since the Kurds are the only community to support the occupation.

The next Iraqi government could be a photocopy of the present one, particularly as it depends entirely on US military strength. The Iraqi army and police still largely play an auxiliary role in supporting the occupation. This means that whatever the outcome of this election, the new government will lack legitimacy in the eyes of many Iraqis because it depends on the US.

"The new Iraqi state must define itself at least partially in opposition to US policies or it runs the risk of defining itself in opposition to many of its own citizens," concludes a report by the International Crisis Group.

As hundreds of foreign journalists pour into Iraq to cover the polls, ordinary people in Baghdad are often too preoccupied with the daily battle for survival to focus much on the election. The streets of the capital are full of muddy brown water from a storm at the weekend. There is now 10 hours electricity a day in the capital, compared to only two or three hours a month ago. But electricity supply is still worse than it was under Saddam.

More electricity means that less petrol is used to fuel small generators which power electric light, television and possibly a fridge in many homes.

This has reduced the waiting time at the petrol stations to only five or six hours compared to a 36-hour wait in December.

Not all the news is good. Mobile phones now often cease to function for hours at a time due to overloading of the system. There has also been a water shortage, blamed on sabotage, in much of Baghdad over the past 10 days.More than half the working population is unemployed so the militias, along with the National Guard and police, find it easy to recruit young men willing to carry a gun.

The new National Assembly is unlikely to make any break with the immediate past. It is a body designed so no community can dominate any other. It will elect a president and two vice-presidents who must receive two thirds of the Assembly's vote. These three will then chose a prime minister and other government ministers.

All this is a recipe for a weak government with each minister representing a separate faction. The Assembly will also draw up a constitution by 15 October and then hold elections for a new government in December. If members cannot agree a constitution then there will be elections for a new National Assembly which will try to write a constitution all over again. The Assembly members must perform these difficult talks in the midst of a savage war.