TRYING TO HOLD elections in Iraq next month is asking for trouble. There's a good chance of violence, there's likely to be a Sunni boycott and there are sure to be increased sectarian and ethnic tensions. Some pessimists believe that elections may focus attention on divisions among Iraqis and be the catalyst for the long-dreaded civil war. In fact, though, just about the only thing worse than holding elections in Iraq in January would be not to hold them.
What would be gained by a postponement? A chance to establish order and security throughout the country? Not likely -- the CIA reports that conditions are getting worse in Iraq, and aren't likely to get better for a long time. Moreover, huge numbers of Shiite Muslims view the elections not only as a chance to assume their rightful, majority role in running the country, but also as the mechanism that will trigger the withdrawal of the American occupation force. It's not hard to imagine the anger that would erupt following a decision to put off the vote and continue with the American-installed transitional government and the 150,000 U.S. troops propping it up.
Is an American withdrawal actually likely? Not a total one, probably. But with an elected government in place, acceptable to millions of Iraqis, there would at least be reason for hoping that Iraqi security forces could become more reliable and more motivated -- and that would allow a significant American pullback to begin.
But would the government have any legitimacy, especially if the Sunni Arabs sit on their hands (or take up arms)? Not a lot of legitimacy, but no less than the current administration enjoys. One idea that deserves exploring is to set aside, say, 25 percent of the seats in the new legislature to be filled by Sunni candidates later on, once their community has decided to participate.
What about the Kurds? Having suffered under Saddam Hussein, they now fear domination by the long-repressed Shiites. Some Kurdish leaders want to put off the election, but they're more likely to gain an accommodation with Shiites by participating in the process, not by obstructing it.
Is filling the government according to ethnic identity a good idea? No, but it recognizes reality.
What can be done to make the elections as free and fair as possible? With time, Sunnis may start to realize that abstention doesn't gain them much and they might as well take part. To the extent that the United States doesn't play obvious favorites, the more credibility the elections will have with ordinary people. To this end, the Americans in Iraq should emphasize that this is the chance for Iraqis to resume control of their own country, much as Afghans felt they were doing in elections earlier this fall. The preparations for the vote are haphazard -- registration of voters, participation of international observers and ballot security are all problematic. Campaigning is impossible in some places. These don't have to be fatal flaws, as the Afghans showed.
Will the elections be free and fair? No. They may even lead to bloodshed. But they'll be better than nothing.