- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

The U.N. fact-finding mission will, understandably, not be able to come up with a magical solution for the Iraqi election dilemma that pleases everyone. Instead, it will find two simple and opposing options.

The rash, half-measure solution of holding elections early this summer may well result in civil strife, as it did for the Kurds in 1992. On the other hand, a process that allows for normalization and time to fully plan a legal framework will lead to free and fair elections.

Rushing into elections will empower the current political giants, who are not representative of the entire population but have money and militias to support their candidates. On the other hand, creating a process that establishes security and regulates political organizations, election campaigns’ funding, voter registration and the location and distribution of polling stations will pave the way for a new, more representative leadership to emerge.

Each of these options has its supporters within the Iraqi political scene.

The Shia clergy and political parties, such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution and the Da’wa Party, are calling for quick elections because they believe that in the current political environment, they will have a majority. They are well-funded, have Iranian support and boast a sophisticated network in Baghdad and the southern parts of the country that do not necessarily reflect their popularity.

The leadership of these groups dominates Shia politics. However, most come from Baghdad and the holy city of Najaf. Time may allow new leadership to emerge in other southern cities that may be less dedicated to their Islamist agenda and will diminish their power.

The popularity of these parties is in many ways a reaction to the oppression of the former regime. This Islamic political leadership is simply riding the wave of popular resentment. In the current environment, the people have few alternatives.

Other lesser-known Shia politicians, those who are mostly secular, democratic, independent and who come from the south, prescribe to the longer-term option of creating an organized electoral framework before elections take place.

They argue that to run for free and fair elections, candidates need to be able to campaign freely. The electorate must have time to get to know the position of candidates to be able to judge their capability to run the country, not just their capability to memorize Koranic verses and preach Islamic values.

The country’s two other major populations, the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds, also endorse the long-term option, but for different reasons.

With the Ba’ath gone, the Sunni Arabs, who fear Islamic Shia hegemony, have as yet no leadership to represent them, save for a few Islamic parties. If elections take place this summer, Islamists, hardliners and members of the former regime will no doubt earn a majority in Sunni areas.

The liberal and democratic-minded people of both the Shia and Sunni populations will be marginalized, and Islamists and other extremists with a lot of historical and religious baggage against each other will assume power.

It was a similar situation for the Kurds in 1992, when they rushed into elections that proved to be the recipe for disaster. After ill-prepared elections and a dispute over the results, the two main Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, came to power with an agreed-to but untenable 50-50 split.

The result was a civil war that ended in two separate administrations in two separate areas of Kurdistan. To this day, they are unable to unify the governments. The Kurdish model of quick elections is now misleadingly touted by some Shia Islamist leaders as the proper model to emulate.

For the Kurds, quick elections in Iraq may be a debilitating replay of their ‘92 elections, but on a much larger and potentially more dangerous scale.

In addition, if elections take place now, before those Kurds who were ethnically cleansed of their lands and homes in Kirkuk and surrounding villages are able to return, Arabs will win a majority in an area that is historically Kurdish.

Those ethnically cleansed areas need a process of normalization and a settlement of property claims before elections can be fair in any sense of the word.

Furthermore, the Kurds will staunchly oppose holding an election before the specific nature of the federal relationship between the Kurdish region and Baghdad has been defined. To them, federalism must come first.

An additional sticky issue, often glossed over by those who support quick elections, is a lack of an accurate population census. The only remotely representative statistics are those of ration cards from the U.N. oil-for-food program that was established in 1996. They are grossly inaccurate. For example, since the start of the program, very few deaths have been reported because that would diminish the food a family receives.

The almost 4 million Iraqis who lived abroad, some of whom have returned, are not included in the ration program. There are attempts to register returning Iraqis, but this resulted in a large number of forged passports and other efforts to obtain new ration cards.

Forgery has been elevated to a high art form in Iraq. Case in point: Iraq’s share of Hajj pilgrims was 30,000 this year. The actual number of Iraqis who crossed borders to Saudi Arabia was 43,000. Therefore, nearly 13,000 special Hajj passports for Iraqis were issued.

All this aside, the security situation is by no means conducive to any organized election. The terrorist threat that continues unabated will prevent people from gathering in election rallies or standing in polling stations.

Iraq has been severely damaged by the former regime. The reality is the country desperately needs a period of recovery and rebuilding before a healthy political life can flourish and support free and fair elections.

Hiwa Osman is a Baghdad-based journalist.

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