Doubt over plan for Iraq elections

Iraq’s independent election commission may have designated January 30 2005 as polling day, but it will be the country’s interim leaders who will decide whether the first free vote in decades goes ahead as planned.

“What we are saying is that we will be ready to hold nationwide elections on January 30,’’ said Adil al-Lami, the chief electoral officer on the commission, which is responsible for organising the vote.

“If we do not meet that deadline, it will not be because we are not ready. The ultimate decisions lie with the politicians.’’

Staging credible elections is a key part of the United States’s post-war agenda and a mainstay of its exit strategy.

Yet in an increasingly polarised and strife-torn land, the prospect of elections in just over two months’ time is being viewed with growing alarm.

In public at least, Ayad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister, has been adamant that the elections — intended to symbolise the completion of the political transition — are on track.

Many commentators and officials, including senior Allawi aides and the country’s president, have argued, however, that the relentless violence in Baghdad and across the Sunni triangle make nationwide elections by the end of January unviable.

Authorities face the logistical nightmare of trying to secure thousands of polling stations and protecting thousands of election workers and observers, and up to 14-million voters, across the country.
Ba’athist and Islamist groups are already threatening to disrupt preparations.

“Everything is going according to the operations plan that the commission has, but providing security is not the mandate of the commission,’’ said Carlos Valenzuela, the commission’s United Nations adviser.

Mahmoud Othman, a former member of the Iraqi Governing Council, said: “Every day that passes it becomes clear that the US military and Iraqi security forces have not yet proved [themselves] capable of making it safe enough for Iraqis to vote.’‘

Leading Sunni Arab politicians have called for a delay of anything from one month to a year. The prospect of holding partial elections, missing out the restive Sunni Arab areas, is also likely to deepen the disarray.

“We would be disenfranchising people in favour of the terrorists,’’ said Hachim al-Hassani, the minister of industry, and a Sunni Arab.

Another concern is that a large-scale boycott by the Sunni Arabs, who make up 15% to 20% of the country’s population, would ruin the vote’s credibility.

A boycott could also deepen the divide between Sunni and Shia Arabs. The big Shia parties, including the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and Da’wa, and representatives of the renegade cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are opposed to any delay, as is the influential Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has issued a fatwa saying it is the duty of the long-dispossessed Shia Iraqis to vote.

Moqtada al-Sadr has reportedly been instructing his militia, the Mahdi Army, to keep the peace in Shia areas during the election.

The Kurds, meanwhile, are bridging the divide. In public, they support the timetable for elections. In private they say a delay may be inevitable. “If there is a delay, everything should be clearly explained, and a definite date set in the future,’’ said Rowsch Nuri Shuways, the Iraqi Vice-President. “Otherwise not holding elections could be as divisive as holding them.’‘

The vote was the main focus of an international conference last week in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Fuad Hussein, an Iraqi political analyst, said: “We all want elections that we’ve waited so long for. But do we have them now and mess them up, or later, with more participation and more credibility?’’ — Â

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