Saving Iraq's Election


New York Times

December 6, 2004

The Bush administration is telling Iraqis not to even think about delaying the sequence of national elections now set to begin on Jan. 30. Pushing back the electoral timetable, as requested late last month by a number of Sunni Arab, Kurdish and secular parties, threatens to push back the timetable for eventual American troop withdrawals, so Iraq is in effect being told to vote in January, ready or not.

This is not helpful advice, especially since one crucial area of the country - the predominantly Sunni Arab region north and west of Baghdad - will almost certainly not be ready to properly participate in a January vote. Postponing the vote, however, risks opposition from the Shiite majority, particularly the well-organized Shiite religious parties that expect to benefit most from a January election. It would be much better for Washington to stand back and encourage Iraq's wary factions to work out their own solution on the election date. That would be good practice for the kind of cross-community bargaining that will be needed to create a legitimate Iraqi government once the voting ends.

The Pentagon now plans to raise troop levels in Iraq to 150,000 by January, to increase security for the elections. A larger increase would be better. Despite the retaking of Falluja, much of the north and west, along with the so-called triangle of death south of Baghdad, is still torn by armed revolt.

Meanwhile, Falluja is in ruins. If the more than 200,000 residents who fled in advance of the fighting can somehow be resettled by late January, electoral politics will clearly not be their primary concern. Even if it were, the Sunni nationalist groups, with whom many Falluja residents identify, have largely stood aside from the electoral preparations.

Moderate Sunni leaders like Adnan Pachachi hope that a postponement of three to four months would open the way to fuller Sunni participation. Going ahead now, they feel, would only entrench and deepen the armed Sunni insurgency. An expanded group of parties and individuals reaffirmed that position again yesterday. The Kurdish position is more ambiguous, and understandably so. A January election that underrepresented Sunni nationalists would result in more seats for the main Kurdish parties. Yet the constituent assembly produced by such elections would almost certainly be dominated by Shiite religious parties likely to oppose Kurdish demands for secularism and regional autonomy.

The most promising solution would be to encourage Sunni moderates and Kurds to put their misgivings about a January vote directly to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the widely respected leader of the Shiite community. In the past, Ayatollah Sistani has shown himself capable of recognizing the broader national interest in peace and legitimacy. Negotiating a consensus Iraqi agreement on the voting-date would do more to advance those interests than sticking to an arbitrary timetable that threatens to produce a dangerously flawed vote.