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Vote seen unlikely to quell violence in Iraq

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LONDON -- Elections in Iraq scheduled for Jan. 30 most likely will do little to end the violence there and could embolden an already stubborn insurgency, according to former British and U.S. officials, advisers who have worked in the country, and Iraqi politicians.

Today marks the official start of campaigning for a new transitional parliament, and the condition of the country is far from where American and Iraqi officials had hoped it would be.

Noting the continuing violence, Sunni religious leaders are calling for a boycott of the election. Without meaningful Sunni representation at the polls, any new government is likely to have the same credibility problems that have hindered Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister, and his government.

The elections will not change what is fueling the insurgency: the continued security and infrastructure problems that have driven many moderate Iraqis to sympathize with the insurgents; the continued presence of U.S. soldiers; and Iraq's ethnic divisions, which could intensify if Shiite candidates win a disproportionately large number of parliamentary seats.

"Unless the political arena is widened to include the Sunnis and preclude the Sunni boycott of elections, you have the perfect storm in terms of continued insurgency," said Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a former political adviser to the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

"The elections, as scheduled, will entrench the insurgency in a chronic kind of way," he said.

After Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's two sons were hunted down and killed, U.S. officials expressed confidence that attacks against American military personnel would subside and that the country was on its way toward peace.

'No protection'

Officials expressed the same hope after the capture of Hussein last December, and then again in June, after the Coalition Provisional Authority ceded formal control to an interim government led by Allawi, a Shiite Muslim returned from decades of exile in London.

"Iraqis were told in June, 'Now the country is in your hands, so the situation will get better.' Of course, the situation has not gotten better," said Rime Allaf, a Middle East expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. "Now they're being told, 'Elections will be held and the country will be yours.' Can you blame any Iraqi for figuring out that casting a ballot is no protection against bombs?"

The plan had been for Allawi's interim government to prepare the country for the vote. With Allawi at the helm, the United States hoped the new government could pull the country's disparate factions together; Iraqis would take responsibility for the country with the assistance of the U.S. military; and relative peace would return in time for the election.

Allawi was an unlikely choice as prime minister in one regard: He had gone into exile in 1971, and Iraqis have shown a general reluctance to support anybody who fled the country. But he proved politically astute enough to recognize how weary the country was and how much Iraqis yearned for a strong leader.

Within minutes of taking office, he promised to unleash "the full force" of the fledgling Iraqi security forces. In Allawi, Iraqis had a leader -- tall, heavy and imposing -- who had survived an assassination attempt by Hussein's agents, who nearly severed one of Allawi's legs with an ax. When Allawi spoke of chopping off the hands of insurgents, many people believed in him.

But within hours, insurgents resumed killing U.S. military personnel, along with Iraqis joining in the country's reconstruction. Six months after Allawi took office, thousands of Iraqi police officers and National Guard members are not reporting to duty out of fear for their lives.

Rime and Diamond sympathize with Allawi, saying that anyone so closely aligned with the United States was going to have difficulty building nationwide support.

Tough talk

It was Allawi's tough talk that won him short-term support but that is now hurting him with many Iraqis. With the insurgency still raging, his credibility has been severely damaged.

"I think he was a good choice, but he suffers from the exile handicap," said Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's former special representative to Iraq. "Anything wrong with the country he is blamed for, along with the Americans, but he lacks the prominence for anybody to give him credit for anything that happens good in the country."

Iraq's ministries were up and limping along before Allawi took over, but he has managed to keep them operating despite the violence. And despite the death of hundreds of Iraqi security personnel, Greenstock said, more recruits continue to arrive in search of jobs.

Allawi is also credited with helping to broker a deal that prevented a full-scale fight between a Shiite faction and the U.S. military in Najaf, in the country's south. The leader of that faction, the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has promised that his efforts to change Iraq will come through elections rather than violence.

But deep distrust remains over most anything connected to the U.S. government, a distrust largely born of the looting of Iraqi government buildings during the war and exacerbated by the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and a string of broken promises since.

"Look, I don't think the problem is necessarily Allawi or the fact that they're trying to hold nationwide elections two years after the war was supposed to have ended," Diamond said. "The problem is the policies of the United States that so radicalized a whole segment of the country that we helped create conditions that helped push even moderates to support the insurgents.

"Elections are not a political strategy that would give groups that are killing our soldiers incentive to surrender their violent tactics."

Polls taken by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies show more Iraqis favoring al-Sadr than Allawi to run the country.

"Maybe if Dr. Allawi had the money and power to do more, he would be in better shape politically," Hamid al-Kifey, a leader of the Movement for Democratic Society, a Shiite group that is running a slate of candidates, said in a telephone interview from Baghdad.

"His problem is, he can't blame the Americans because to a lot of people, he is the Americans."

More than 120 political parties have registered and been accepted for the ballot. Most of them represent one of the three major population groups, the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds.

Officially, the 275 members of the new Transitional National Assembly will have authority to make laws, unlike the current interim government. The assembly will also choose a president and two deputies, who will select a prime minister.

The assembly is to draw up a draft constitution by Aug. 15, which will be submitted for a referendum vote by Oct. 15.

A fully constitutional government would be voted on by Dec. 15, 2005, and take power Dec. 31.

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