A Bloody Road to Elections

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

December 22, 2004

The attack Tuesday on a U.S. military base in northern Iraq that killed more than 20 people — 15 of them American soldiers — provided graphic evidence that the insurgency is little diminished.

Many of the guerrillas driven from Fallouja last month when U.S. officials proclaimed a major victory moved to Mosul and other cities and continue to wreak havoc. President Bush's belated admission Monday that suicide bombers are "having an effect" understated the problem.

The explosion at a base mess tent in the city of Mosul came two days after separate attacks in cities holy to Shiite Muslims killed more than 60 people. Shiite leaders wisely counseled calm among their followers, warning that retaliation against Sunnis could lead to civil war, an apparent aim of the terrorists.

Shiites account for 60% of Iraq's population and have a chance in Jan. 30 elections to exact political payback for years of oppression by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni who gave his coreligionists top posts. The difficulty in holding meaningful elections was demonstrated again on Sunday when assailants pulled three workers of the Independent Electoral Commission from their cars in Baghdad and murdered them execution-style amid rush-hour traffic. The attackers, as a picture on the front page of this newspaper Monday made clear, did not even bother to disguise their faces.

Some Sunni leaders already are urging a boycott of the elections, which will choose a transitional national assembly to write a constitution and pick a prime minister. This is a mistake on their part. A boycott would undercut, though not destroy, the legitimacy of the balloting. But it would ensure that Sunnis have even less of a voice in the future of their nation.

For Washington, the main concern is protecting thousands of polling places in order for the election results to be deemed credible. Bush said Monday the training of Iraqi security forces had produced "mixed" results. That was another understatement — many troops have fled when attacked. We can only hope that an Iraqi government with more legitimacy might command more loyalty and a greater willingness among police and soldiers to stand and fight. Trouble is, for that to happen the election that could provide that greater legitimacy needs to be held, and protected.