U.S. Is Haunted by Initial Plan for Iraq Voting

By STEVEN R. WEISMAN

New York Times

January 9, 2005

WASHINGTON, Jan. 8 - In its struggle to transfer sovereignty back to Iraq last spring, the Bush administration made some tough decisions about the makeup of the political system and how Iraqi elections could occur quickly and fairly. But now a little-noticed decision on election procedures has come back to haunt administration officials, just weeks before the vote is to take place, administration and United Nations officials say.

The fundamental decision set up one nationwide vote for a new national assembly, rather than elections by districts and provinces. With a violent insurgency spreading through the Sunni Arab areas of the country, it now looks as if fewer Sunnis will vote, distorting the balance of the legislature and casting doubt on whether the election will be seen as legitimate.

According to officials planning the election, the decision was driven by the realities of an unstable Iraq and the unrelenting pressure to speed the country to a vote by the end of January 2005, as demanded by many Iraqis. To make that deadline, it was believed, there was no time to conduct a census or go through the politically divisive chore of drawing district lines.

A national constituency also made it easier to meet the demands of the former exiles installed in power in Baghdad to let millions of Iraqis living outside the country vote, and the demands of others to ensure that 25 percent of the legislators were women. The experts reasoned that it would be much easier to find women for slates running nationwide than for each of many smaller districts.

"We looked at a lot of alternatives and presented them to the Iraqis and everyone else," said an official involved in the decision-making process. "Basically, a nationwide constituency solved a lot of problems and made our lives a lot easier."

But now, with the violent insurgency and more than 7,000 candidates, many in alliances with other candidates, running for 275 seats nationwide, the disadvantages of the current system are becoming all too apparent, according to American, Iraqi and United Nations officials.

For one thing, these officials say, there is no possibility of postponing the election selectively in those districts gripped by the insurgency. For another, the expected low turnout in perhaps a fifth of the country, where the Sunni minority lives, will presumably lessen the chances of candidates who are popular there.

This problem is discouraging Sunnis from running or campaigning, and a failure of these candidates to win proportionate to their share of Iraq's population, could easily reinforce the Sunnis' alienation from the Shiite majority.

Thus an election intended to bring Iraq together and quell the insurgency could produce the opposite outcome, in part because of the way it has been organized.

In a speech Thursday at the New America Foundation, a public policy institute in Washington, Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser of President George H. W. Bush and an increasingly vocal critic of the war, warned of the danger of the election worsening the conflict. "The Iraqi elections, rather than turning out to be a promising turning point, have the great potential for deepening the conflict," he said.

The problem of underrepresentation of Sunnis in a future legislature has already stirred talk among Americans, Iraqis and United Nations officials of making adjustments after the voting. Among the ideas being discussed are simply adding seats to the 275-member legislature, or guaranteeing that the future government or constitution-writing committees have a fixed percentage of Sunni representatives.

The decision to set up the election this way was made by L. Paul Bremer III late in his tenure as the American administrator in Iraq. His aides say the decision was urged on him by United Nations experts who argued that there was no other way to ensure elections quickly.

The decision was discussed in Washington, but it is not clear whether it was formally approved at the White House.

It was overshadowed by other decisions by Mr. Bremer, particularly his efforts to persuade Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, to put the elections off until January.

But the national-constituency choice is now rued by at least some members of Mr. Bremer's team.

"It was well-intentioned, but it was a mistake," said Larry Diamond, a former adviser who is now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

"It's clear now that one of the major concerns motivating the Sunni boycott is their fear that they'll wind up severely underrepresented under this system."

Another former adviser to Mr. Bremer, Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argues further that the system favors the dominant Shiite parties with national organizations over local candidates known only in their areas. This in turn is reinforcing Sunni anxiety about voting, he says.

Other former aides to Mr. Bremer say there was never any intention to cement Shiite control over Iraq. They say that while they would have preferred electing the new legislators from smaller districts, the practical problems were overwhelming. Some also say that while they were focusing on the transition, they deferred to the United Nations on election mechanics.

"Ambassador Bremer was open to hearing a number of arguments from various elections experts," said Dan Senor, spokesman for the American occupation last year. "The United Nations experts told us unequivocally that elections could not be held by the end of January based on any other system."

Carina Perelli, chief of the United Nations electoral assistance mission in Iraq, reached her conclusion based on an assessment of the practical problems and after consulting with Iraqis, officials said. The driving factor was the American promise to hold the vote in January 2005.

"In the time frame we had, and given the elements that we had, it was the best possible choice we could have made," Ms. Perelli said in an interview. "As long as Iraqis were insisting on an election by Jan. 30, we chose the best way to have a minimum disenfranchisement of voters and candidates."

Mr. Bremer declined to comment for this article, Mr. Senor said. But several American officials said that in recalling the deference shown to Ms. Perelli and her team, they were not trying to blame her for a bad decision. Rather, they said, at the time all agreed it was the right decision and the fairest way of conducting the election.

In the system being used this month, most candidates are running in blocs and will receive votes as a group. But, several officials noted that any candidate running alone and getting one-275th of the national vote will get a seat in the assembly, and that candidates popular in their communities should have no trouble amassing that kind of a vote, even in spite of security problems.

Most former occupation officials interviewed said there was a consensus around Mr. Bremer that drawing district lines in the heat of the occupation would have itself divided Iraqis. "We were always running into the fairness question," said an official in Baghdad. "We knew the environment was one of conflict. Why make plans for an election that by themselves create even more opportunities for friction?"

But some officials said Mr. Bremer's advisers were now blaming Ms. Perelli for the decision. One said that he had attended a meeting with Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser and secretary of state-designate, at which she simply shrugged off the decision and said it had been made by the United Nations.