Fri, Jan 28, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Elections are just the beginning of Iraq's troubles


"If there is no election on Jan. 30, Iraq faces a civil war."

This has been the constant warning from members of interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's government.

What they do not mention is that the danger of a civil war will not necessarily be reduced by the first countrywide elections to be held in Iraq.

An unrepresentative result that leaves the Sunni minority in the central provinces around Baghdad further isolated could even lead, in a worst-case scenario, to the state breaking apart.

Iraqis are almost certain to vote in a transitional assembly dominated by Shiite Arabs, which in turn will lead to increased influence by religious scholars.

And the government put into office by this parliament is likely to outrage the Sunni insurgents and extremists just as much as Allawi's current interim government.

In Iraq, where almost all the major political movements have armed militiamen at their disposal, there is in any case a danger that the struggle for political power will be pursued with weapons once the elections are over.

The electoral system, based on proportional representation across the whole country, provides problems of its own.

It is seen as advantageous to the ethnic minorities and the Kurds, who were once subject to forcible removal by Saddam Hussein.

But it could work against the large Sunni minority, as a low turnout is expected in the provinces where they predominate.

The preparations for Iraq's elections can hardly be seen as a democratic election campaign in the normal sense.

Fear of terrorist attack prevented the candidates for the 275 seats in the new parliament from delivering campaign speeches in public.

This factor has worked in favor mainly of the members of the interim government, who in the final weeks have used their positions to ensure that they are constantly in the media spotlight, pushing their lists.

Election day will bring its own dangers for those Iraqis who intend to ignore the threats and warnings from the extremists and cast their ballots.

Most Iraqis are expected to vote for the lists representing their respective ethnic and religious background.

This should work to the advantage of the Kurdish parties and of the United Iraqi Alliance, which is dominated by Shiite religious leaders.

Among the secular parties, the communists believe they have a chance of making a good showing, as they look back on a long political tradition in Iraq and were brutally persecuted by the Saddam regime.

Voters who mistrust the religious leaders can also choose between the political groups represented respectively by interim President Ghazi al-Yawer and his rival interim Prime Minister Allawi.

But both have to battle against the image problem of having been appointed to their posts while the US held sway.

The Shiite religious leaders under Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani support the United Iraqi Alliance, claiming that the elections are the right way to end the occupation.

But the chaotic conditions in much of Iraq suggest that a victory by the main Shiite list under Abdul Aziz al-Hakim will not in fact lead to a call for the US forces to leave.

In Washington, however, there are increasing calls for an orderly withdrawal from the Iraqi quagmire.

After Saddam's weapons of mass destruction -- a central reason for last year's invasion -- turned out to be a chimera and following the scandal around torture at Abu Ghraib prison, it is unlikely that US President George W. Bush will be able simply to abandon the country to its fate.

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