- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

Iraqis headed to the polls today in an election that shows how far the country has come since the U.S.-led invasion two years ago — and how far it still has to go.

Results for the new 275-seat National Assembly are not expected for at least another week. But a cruder judgment on the legitimacy of the process — and on the effects of a vicious terrorist campaign to intimidate candidates and voters — could be delivered by the time the polls close.

Bush administration officials, buoyed by a recent poll showing an overwhelming number of Iraqis say they want to vote, are increasingly confident that the vote will exceed the admittedly low international expectations for the balloting.

President Bush last week predicted the vote will be remembered as “a grand moment in Iraqi history.”

Conceding that Iraq’s democracy still faces grave challenges and deadly opposition, Mr. Bush insisted that “the fact they’re voting in itself is a success.”

U.S. officials caution that today’s vote is only the first step in a difficult process in which Iraq’s warring ethnic and religious blocs must form a government, elect a president, draft and win ratification of a new constitution and hold elections for a permanent parliament — all by the end of December.

The election also presents a key test of strength for terrorist groups, which have vowed to disrupt the election and threatened to kill anyone who dares to vote.

Attacks on election officials, U.S. and Iraqi security forces and other election-related targets have intensified in recent days. Last night, a rocket hit the U.S. Embassy inside the green zone, killing two Americans and injuring four others. At least 17 others, including an American soldier, were killed in separate attacks across the country yesterday in a relatively calm day before the election.

The Islamic Army In Iraq, a Sunni terrorist group, recently posted a warning on its Internet site urging new attacks.

“It is no secret that the enemies of Allah — the Americans and their hypocrite, apostate allies — are trying to make the infidel elections a success,” the statement said. “Under these circumstances, the Islamic Army of Iraq has ordered all the forces it commands to intensify their attacks as much as possible.”

For all the massive political, logistical and security problems plaguing the vote, the uncertainty over the outcome is nevertheless a massive shift from the dictatorial days of ousted strongman Saddam Hussein.

“This is an election whose outcome is impossible to predict,” said a Baghdad-based senior State Department official, briefing reporters on the vote. “I think that’s one of the delightful aspects of it.”

“Everyone knows about the problems, the Iraqis most of all,” said John Anelli, deputy director of Iraqi programs in Baghdad for the Washington-based International Republican Institute (IRI), which has done the most extensive polling of the Iraqi electorate.

“But there’s overwhelming desire for normality, and our surveys show there really is reason to be hopeful,” he said.

Massive question marks hang over today’s vote, and over the political jockeying that will follow.

The security situation is so uncertain that many candidates have refused to identify themselves publicly and the location of many polling places had been kept secret until today.

The terror campaign has driven virtually all foreign election monitors from the country, with a small contingent hoping to “observe” the fairness of the vote from across the border in Jordan.

Overt campaigning in many areas is considered too dangerous. The most extensive survey of Iraqi attitudes on the election, conducted by IRI, could not even poll in many heavily Sunni Arab areas because of the violence.

Patrick Basham, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, said the violence and intimidation, the lack of real campaigning, the absence of international observers and the prospect of postelection chaos threaten to undermine Iraq’s democracy before it can get started.

“The politically incorrect truth is that there is an obvious danger in holding democratic elections too soon for some societies,” he said.

“We may be about to learn that the past 20 months, believe it or not, was the easy part,” he added.

The critical question: Will Iraq’s restive Arab Sunnis, who dominated the nation under Saddam and who have been at the heart of the tenacious resistance to the U.S.-backed interim government, participate in significant numbers in the election and find a place in the government that the vote produces?

Laith Kubba, senior program officer for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy, said he expected heavy turnouts among Iraq’s majority Shi’ites and among Kurds. Sunni participation will be much lower, but overall he predicted a turnout of at least 60 percent — matching U.S. turnout in the November 2004 presidential balloting.

“Failure in Iraq’s election would be very bad for other Muslim countries,” said Mr. Kubba, a leading democratic voice in the Iraqi-exile community during Saddam’s years in power.

“It would push a real divide between Shias and Sunnis, and it would give a very negative picture of U.S.-backed democracy for the whole region,” he said.

Abu Haider is the unofficial “mayor” of Baghdad’s al-Mansour district, a neighborhood of one-story brick and concrete homes best-known for housing three of Saddam’s most luxurious palaces.

The 52-year-old city council member serves as a go-between for U.S. and Iraqi security forces, and the windows of his office were recently blown out by a bomb that targeted the offices of Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.

“Most of the Iraqi people have fears of this election because of security,” the chain-smoking Mr. Haider said.

But “most feel confident for this election; not 100 percent, but a high percentage,” he added, “because democracy in Iraq is new, and most Iraqi people are hungry for democracy.”

“My opinion as an Iraqi is that most Iraqis have to be involved in this election to show we are capable and … to show the world we can do it.”

An engineer who identifies himself only as “Ali,” is one of Mr. Haider’s constituents. He offers a much more pessimistic take.

“If anyone knows we are working or having lunch with Americans, it would be a disaster,” he said. “Most Iraqis are not interested in this election, to be honest.”

“Saddam took our freedom and our democracy, but he gave us security. [The United States] gave us high salaries, but no security. I don’t want the money. I want security.”

One leaflet circulated on the streets of Baghdad warned potential voters: “We will shadow you and catch you, and we will cut off your heads and the heads of your children.”

Despite the carnage and the threats, some 14.27 million Iraqis registered for the election, and 18,000 candidates and 256 party groups are seeking seats.

While there will be no foreign monitors, some 25,000 Iraqi poll-watchers, both independents and those linked to political parties, will be deployed.

In all, there will be 21 separate elections conducted today, including ballots for a separate transitional parliament for the Iraq’s Kurdish northern territories; council elections for each of Iraq’s 18 provinces; and local elections in the flash point city of Kirkuk, where Arabs, Kurds and Iraq’s minorities have long jockeyed for control.

But the biggest prize will be the Transitional National Assembly, which will run the country until elections for a permanent government are held in December.

The National Assembly will select a president and two deputies and, crucially, draft a permanent constitution by Aug. 15 to be put to a popular referendum by Oct. 15.

Unlike in the United States, there will be no geographic districts from which candidates can run.

Instead, the entire country is considered one giant district, and parties will be assigned seats based on their proportion of the total vote.

Parties prepare a ranked list of candidates, and election rules require every third candidate to be a woman in a bid to boost female representation.

If, for example, a party wins 5 percent of the popular vote, it would be awarded 14 seats (275 multiplied by 0.05) in the assembly.

Polling for individual parties and candidates has been sketchy. Most observers expect a coalition blessed by Shi’ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to win a plurality of votes, with an alliance of Kurdish parties also doing well.

But almost no one expects a single party list to win a clear majority, and the makeup of the resulting government is impossible to predict.

With so much riding on the election, U.S. and Iraqi officials have been loath to give benchmarks on what constitutes a successful vote, saying that will be for the Iraqis to determine.

“I think the issue of what constitutes a successful election is one for the Iraqi people first and foremost to decide,” the senior State Department official said.

“All of us outside Iraq can make any number of judgments. But in the end, this election will be regarded as legitimate or illegitimate on the basis of the views of the Iraqi population itself.”

Kieran Prendergast, U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs, also declined to give a hard-and-fast standard for the election. U.N. experts helped design the procedures for the vote.

“It’s up to the Iraqi people to decide whether it’s legitimate,” he said. “I’m not going to prejudge the outcome.”

Mr. Kubba and Mr. Basham said a key postelection question will center on how much representation will be given to Sunni interests, particularly if there is a major boycott by Sunnis in today’s vote.

A Shi’ite-dominated ruling coalition could seek revenge for centuries of oppression and discrimination at the hands of the Arab Sunnis, who make up a fifth of the country’s population. Or it could move to include Sunni parties and representatives in the constitution-writing process, in hopes of easing the Sunni-led insurgency.

With final results not expected until the middle of next week, turnout could provide an early clue to the success of the vote. But it is unlikely Iraqis will match the levels recorded under Saddam’s dictatorship, when 99 percent or more would show up to support for the governing candidate — the only name on the ballot.

“You can have a vote with 20 percent turnout that produces a legitimate functioning government, and you can have a vote with 100 percent turnout that nobody recognizes as free and fair,” said Robert A. Schadler, a former U.S. Information Agency official and a board member of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy.

“It all depends on the context,” he said.

Sharon Behn in Baghdad and Betsy Pisik in New York contributed to this story.

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