Not even Saddam could achieve the divisions this election will bring

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

The Independent

16 January 2005

Sunday 30 January will be the day when myth and reality come together with - I fear - an all too literal bang. The magic date upon which Iraq is supposed to transform itself into a democracy will no doubt be greeted as another milestone in America's adventure and, I suspect, another "great day for Iraq" by Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara. He, of course, doesn't have to be blown up in the polling stations or torn to pieces by suicide bombers on the way home. The "martyrs of democracy", as I am sure the dead will be feted, will be those Iraqis who have decided to go along with an election so physically dangerous that the international observers will be "observing" the poll from Amman.

The real trouble with this election, however, is not so much the violence that will take place before, during and, rest assured, after 30 January. The greatest threat to "democracy" is that with four provinces containing around half the population of Iraq in a state of insurgency and many of its towns under rebel control, this election is going to widen the differences between Sunnis, Shias and Kurds in a way that not even Saddam Hussein was able to achieve. If the Sunnis don't vote - save for those living in America, Syria and other exotic locations - then the Shia community, perhaps 60 per cent of the population, will take an overwhelming number of seats in the "Transitional National Assembly".

In other words, the Shias, who are not fighting the US occupation of Iraq, will be voting under American auspices while the Sunnis, who are fighting, will refuse to participate in what the insurgents have already labelled a "quisling" election. The four million Kurds will vote. But however many seats they gain, they are not going to abandon their quasi-independence after the election. Thus the dangers of civil war - so trumpeted by the Americans and British - may be increased rather than suppressed by this much-touted experiment in democracy. In fact, Iraq is a tribal - not a religious - society and the real war, which some in the West might like to be replaced by the civil variety, will continue to be between Sunni insurgents and the United States military.

Nevertheless, nobody could miss the significance of last week's assassination of Mahmoud al-Madaen, along with his son and four bodyguards, at Salman Pak, south of Baghdad. Al-Madaen was the personal representative in the town of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the leading Shia prelate in Iraq. On the same day, another of Ayatollah Sistani's aides, Halim al-Moaqaq was found "drowned in his own blood", according to a spokesman, in Najaf. The ayatollah has given his blessing to the elections which will, theoretically at least, give Shias power for the first time after being marginalised and crushed by the Ottomans, the British, the kings and then the Sunni dictators of Iraq.

The Shias have been repeatedly told by their leaders to take no revenge for these attacks and have behaved with remarkable restraint. Even when Mohamed Baqr al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was blown up by a car bomb last year there was not a single act of vengeance committed by the Shias. Yet they well understand the threat uttered by Osama bin Laden, that participation in the elections is an act of apostasy because the Iraqi constitution "is a Jahaliyya constitution that is made by man". Literally meaning "ignorant", Bin Laden's expression refers to the Arabs of pre-Islamic times, who lived in "ignorance" of God before the birth of the Prophet. Of one thing we can be sure: those Iraqis who vote will be brave men and women. Whether they are wise is another matter.

Yet even if the Shias win the largest share of seats in the 275-member parliament, the war will go on and the Sunnis will have nothing to lose by supporting it. Besides, the election is of such complexity that even those who dare to visit polling stations in Sunni areas may be perplexed by the ballot. There are 75 parties and nine coalitions standing - in all, 7,471 candidates for the 275 seats - and all will be elected by proportional representation. Any candidate who receives 1/275th of the vote will get a seat. A party with 20 per cent of the vote would get 20 per cent of the seats, its 55 top-scoring candidates going to parliament. The parliament's job is to propose a constitution which will then be put before a referendum - another dangerous poll that is supposed to be held before 15 October and then - wait for it - there will be elections by 15 December to choose a new government.

This divinely optimistic schedule has been put together by the Americans and Iraqis inside the Green Zone, the much-mortared fortress in central Baghdad from which few emerge to visit the real world of open sewers and power-cut suburbs and destitution beyond their gates.

Of course, with all those observers sipping their gin and tonics in Amman, there's no way of ensuring that the voting figures for these elections cannot be massaged. That the electoral group headed by the current "interim" Prime Minister, ex-CIA agent Iyad Allawi, should have been caught handing out $100 bills in plain envelopes to Iraqi journalists last week did not suggest that the poll will be free of corruption. The Americans and British will make great play, of course, of the thousands of Iraqis who vote abroad as well as the turn-out in Shia cities and in the Kurdish north. We'll be told repeatedly that the Iraqi people have expressed their democratic wishes, that freedom really has arrived in Iraq, that the bombers could not defeat the march of democracy, etc.

All well and good. But without the Sunni vote the parliament will be as unrepresent- ative of the nation as those glorious elections of old. And there is other cause for worry. While the insurgency has continued, the number of suicide bombings over the past few days has noticeably dropped. I wonder why. Have the volunteers dried up? Or are the suicide squads being saved up and collected in preparation for the big day?