Safety is the main worry in election plans for Iraq

Posted in Iraq | 24-Jan-04 | Author: Edward Wong| Source: International Herald Tribune

and John H. Cushman Jr.

BAGHDAD - For months, the Bush administration has resisted Iraqi calls for direct elections by June 30, citing the need for a census to compile voter rolls and other measures to ensure fair balloting.

But some experts say that many of these conditions, which U.S. officials say are too cumbersome to complete in time, could be met.

Another obstacle, perhaps greater and largely unacknowledged, according to the military, the United Nations and outside election experts, is the continuing violence in Iraq. To argue that security is a serious impediment, however, would be to admit that American forces are unable to quell the running war with the insurgents.

Some U.S. generals now say privately that the continuing attacks, especially those against Iraqi civilians, present a daunting obstacle to holding the direct elections demanded by Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, the country's most powerful cleric among the majority Shiites. Even those outside experts who say that there are practical ways to hold a quick vote say that turnout could be suppressed by violence, and that protecting the polls with soldiers or policemen, too, might keep people away.

"I guess you could devise mechanisms to make it possible, security permitting," said Joost Hiltermann, a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention organization, who visited Iraq this week to research election prospects. "But 'security permitting' is a big if. The risk is that if you go ahead, the results could be seriously skewed, even dangerously skewed."

If bombings or other attacks like those that occurred this week in Baghdad, Karbala and Mosul take place in one section of the country or another during balloting, the resulting disparities in security might badly reduce turnout in certain areas and render the election unfair, election experts say. Iraq's ethnic divisions, mirrored imperfectly in its politics, tend to follow rough geographic lines that define the largely Kurdish north, the central Sunni heartland and the overwhelmingly Shiite south.

It would be especially dangerous if security was weak in Sunni Arab areas and consequently depressed turnout among that group, which makes up a fifth of the country's 25 million people. Sunnis formed the core of Saddam Hussein's government, and it is in the so-called Sunni triangle that violence against the U.S. military is fiercest.

Many Sunnis already feel disenfranchised, and their anger will only grow if security problems keep them from voting and skew the election results, Hiltermann said.

Under the current plan, a transitional assembly - several hundred Iraqis from every region and social sector - will be chosen in caucus-style elections from the country's 18 provinces. That assembly is to choose an interim government in June, and that indirectly elected interim government is to draft a constitution.

But shortly after the November agreement, Sistani came out against the caucus plan and for direct balloting. A direct ballot would give the Shiites, who account for 60 percent of the population, a clear advantage, while the caucus plan is more likely to give moderate politicians a leg up.

On Monday, 100,000 supporters of Sistani marched through Baghdad protesting the coalition's plans. The crowds have been peaceful, if adamant, in echoing his repeated calls for the kind of democracy that they say direct elections would produce.

The U.S. military, though, which has sustained hundreds of casualties in the past few months, sees democracy following security, not the other way around.

Iraqi Army and police forces would have to guard the polls, because a highly visible presence of American soldiers at voting booths could be seen as intimidation, a U.S. Army general based in Iraq said Wednesday. But there are not even enough policemen right now to fight crime and battle insurgents, he added.

Ibrahim al-Jafari, a Shiite member of the American-picked Iraqi Governing Council, said he supported elections and even suggested that militias already organized by some Iraqi parties might play a role in helping to provide security.

But that, too, could raise questions of intimidation, as the handful of parties with well-developed militias would undoubtedly field candidates during an election.