- The Washington Times - Monday, October 4, 2004

BAGHDAD — Elections to decide Iraq’s future are threatened as much by the legacy of Saddam Hussein’s authoritarian rule as by the bombs and gunfire of postwar terrorists determined to keep voters from the polls, Western diplomats say.

Less than 100 days before the scheduled January balloting, no election posters adorn the capital’s streets and no names are being bandied about. There have been no debates scheduled, no candidate forums and no voter education guides.

For decades, Saddam’s security apparatus cracked down mercilessly on any attempt to organize political alternatives to his Ba’ath Party, even targeting dissidents abroad through assassination attempts.

Iraqi politics became a dark and secretive enterprise rather than a forum for solving common problems. Diplomats worry that the major parties are simply continuing the tradition, instead of reaching out to the public in ways that could legitimize the future government.

“The parties have been more worried about dividing the power among themselves than any outreach to the broader public,” said a senior U.S. diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They haven’t felt much of a need to reach out to the public.”

Much is at stake in the election, which will establish a 275-seat parliament with the authority to draw up a new Iraqi constitution. But so far the talk has been not about issues but about whether elections can go forward at all and, if so, in how much of the country.

“If elections take place in the current disorder, the best organized faction will be the extremists,” Jordan’s King Abdullah II said in an interview published last week in the conservative French daily Le Figaro.

“The results will reflect this advantage of the extremists. In such a scenario, there will be no chance that the situation gets better.”

Iraq’s highest ranking Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, also has cast doubt on the legitimacy of the elections, said Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of a Shi’ite political party. The reclusive cleric last week “expressed concerns [that] the regulations and conditions set for the elections are unsuitable,” Mr. al-Hakim told Iranian state radio.

A sense that those seeking to lead the country are out of touch with ordinary Iraqis only grew stronger after a visit to Washington late last month by Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a former Ba’ath Party protege and CIA asset who lived abroad for decades.

Many were taken aback when Mr. Allawi publicly thanked the American people for what even his supporters view as a botched occupation of their country.

“Allawi should have politely criticized the Americans for the occupation,” said Mohamed Abdul Qader, 23, a student of technology at Mustansiriya University. “That would have made him more popular with the people, because the Iraqi people would never thank the American people for this occupation.”

A handshake and chat with the Israeli foreign minister at the United Nations — widely reported here — reinforced the image of Mr. Allawi as politically out of touch with his fellow Iraqis.

“Iraq is not forced to have relations with Israel,” said Nadeem al-Jaberi, a professor of political science and a member of the Iraqi National Assembly. “There is no security or ideological necessity to have such relations. It would have been better for the prime minister to avoid this subject.”

Huge swaths of the population remain not just alienated from the political process, but violently opposed to it. Poor Shi’ites in the cities of Basra, Nasariyah and Kut and the Baghdad slum of Sadr City appear to have gathered around firebrand preacher Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia is engaged in nightly gunbattles with multinational forces.

Sunni Arabs, dislodged from an elite status they have enjoyed since the Ottoman Empire, are enraged and moving further toward political and religious extremism.

“They realize they’ve been dealt out,” said Sharif Ali bin Hussein, heir to the defunct Iraqi throne and leader of a monarchist party. “Many sections of the Iraqi people have been dealt out of the process.”

Attempts to draw them into the electoral process have proven futile. “At the moment, the Sunnis are very negative. They are not positively in favor of the political process at all,” said Saad Qindeel, a leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the large Shi’ite parties.

Iraqis also worry that efforts by the seven major parties who control the National Assembly to agree on a list of candidates are nothing more than a scheme to ensure that they remain in power.

“I think we’re being set up to have fraud on a large scale,” Mr. Hussein said. “I think the government will be allowed to cheat.”

Americans as well as Iraqis worry that a low turnout will leave the new government with a weak mandate.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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