- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2005

Rumors are beginning to circulate in Baghdad and around the Washington Beltway that Iraq’s much-anticipated Jan. 30 elections may be postponed. For the moment these are merely rumors. Rumors? Or are they rather “feelers” being put out to gauge the public’s reaction?

Despite strong insistence from the Bush administration — particularly the president — that the elections must proceed regardless of impediments to comprehensive balloting, reality may force a different course.

Iraq’s realism is that national elections may be impractical, not to say impossible, amid the mounting violence gripping the country. Indeed, as predicted, the violence appears to be increasing as Election Day approaches.

The result may be that parts of the country — the Sunni areas, for example — may be unable to vote. Many Iraqis have made it known they will not venture outside their homes on Election Day.

On Tuesday, Ali Radi al-Haidari, governor of the Baghdad area, was killed along with several of his bodyguards. He is the highest-ranking Iraqi official to be assassinated since May. A day earlier interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi was targeted. Insurgents are also going after election officials; several have already been assassinated.

Reports from Baghdad indicate Mr. Allawi’s government may be seeking a deferment, though the prime minister denies it.

In what may prove to be a trial balloon, Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem al-Shaalan mentioned the possibly postponing the elections. It would seem unlikely such a high-ranking member of Mr. Allawi’s government would speak on such an issue without approval of his boss, the prime minister.

The Iraqi minister said delaying the elections was the “beginning of an American retraction showing flexibility.” The defense minister was quoted by al-Quds al-Arabi, a London-based Palestinian newspaper, as saying the Americans might accept a change of date “after being convinced that holding them at this time will not change anything.”

The newspaper said “the U.S. administration was undoubtedly in a crisis in Iraq.” That may be the understatement of the year, even thought the year is just a week old.

And only a few days earlier, Samir Sumaidaie, Iraq’s United Nations’ representative pushed for a two-week postponement. Iraq’s President Ghazi Yawar also urged the United Nations, which is providing election monitors, to re-examine postponement.

Adnan Pachachi, president of the governing council and a former foreign minister, said a few months’ delay would let Iraq engage groups now outside the political process.

But it would be difficult for the United States to accept a delay at this point. A number of analysts believe there are dual reasons behind the U.S. insistence on Jan. 30 elections, regardless of the consequences, even if it boils down to a single ballot box in the hyper-secured “Green Zone.”

First, it’s a matter of saving face, which in the Middle East it is more than a game of “playing chicken.” In this case, he who blinks first will be considered defeated. A victory by the insurgency will garner them much-needed support.

Deferred elections would be seen as a victory for the al Qaeda-backed insurgency, giving it a breath of fresh air after their defeat in Fallujah. It might be a short-lived victory, but nevertheless, they can get mileage from it.

In the eyes of the Arab world, the U.S. administration and the U.S.-created and backed interim Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Ayad Allawi would appear to have caved in to pressure from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s group.

Zarqawi, who has claimed many of the terrorist attacks — the kidnappings, killings and horrendous beheadings that have plagued Iraq for the good part of a year now — was recently recognized by Osama bin Laden as the “amir,” or the prince, of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Second, some observers feel earlier rather than later elections would lay the groundwork for beginning American withdrawal from the Iraqi morass. Until elections are held and the Iraqis legally regain control of their country, an American withdrawal would be very unlikely.

The cost of war now stands at more than $148 billion and is rising more than $110,000 per minute — yes, per minute.

Meanwhile, human casualties are also rising almost daily, with more than 1,300 killed and the wounded, according to the Defense Department, tallying more than 10,000. The Bush administration, therefore, would undoubtedly like to begin seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

The London-based newspaper predicts the Iraqi resistance will escalate its efforts if the polls are postponed or held on time. But Iraqi officials are already wavering toward the idea a postponement might not be a bad idea.

Voting was delayed in Afghanistan to include more factions. In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Mr. Pachachi says, “It is far more important for Iraqis to accept the legitimacy of the election results, whatever they might be, than the elections be held on a particular day in a country that has not known elections for 50 years.”

According to the Washington rumor mill, postponement of was the reason Prime Minister Allawi phoned President Bush Monday. But these are only rumors. Or are they?

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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