/ 25 January 2005

Neither free nor fair

They are routinely described by the international media as Iraq’s first free and democratic elections.

During his stopover in Baghdad last month, British Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted that whatever you had thought of the war, no one could avoid taking sides in what had become a simple ”battle between democracy and terror” in Iraq.

And even if enthusiasm for the elections scheduled for January 30 is usually tempered by an admission that they are bound in practice to prove ”imperfect”, there is a widespread view in the occupying countries that they offer the best chance to begin to lift the country out of its misery.

We have, of course, been here before. Every landmark since the United States and British invasion has been claimed as a turning point for the occupation, the moment when support for the resistance would start to recede and a new Iraq emerge from the devastation.

And no doubt for those who thought Iraqis would welcome their invaders, that they wouldn’t resist the occupation, that Saddam Hussein’s capture would take the wind out of the fighters’ sails, that June’s handover of sovereignty would be seen as genuine and the destruction of Falluja would break the back of the insurgency — for them, the ballot will surely seem to be the crucial event that must at last deliver legitimacy to the puppet regime holed up in Baghdad’s infamous green zone.

But, in reality, the elections are likely at best to be irrelevant, at worst to plunge Iraq deeper into the abyss. Both common sense and first principles dictate that no election in a country invaded and controlled by foreign troops can be regarded as free and fair.

The poll is part of a process imposed by President George W Bush’s proconsul Paul Bremer, transparently designed to entrench US plans for Iraq and the wider Middle East; all the main politicians and parties taking part owe their position to US protection and power; and voting will take place in a country under martial law, where a guerrilla war is raging and whose heartlands are under daily bombardment.

The US-appointed government has cracked down on the recalcitrant press and expelled the independent al-Jazeera TV station, while the hands of any future administration have been tied by a US-imposed neo-liberal economic programme.

Add to that the fact that major political groups and politicians are boycotting the elections as illegitimate under occupation — while security is so bad in four provinces (accounting for more than half the population) that both the US ground forces commander and Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said last week it would be too dangerous for many people to vote.

And just as intimidation is expected to enforce a boycott in some Sunni-dominated areas, pro-regime militias are expected to dragoon Shia voters to the polls in parts of the south. Without election observers the scope for fraud is extensive. Most candidates’ names have been withheld while voter registration forms are being traded for dollars.

But most crucially of all, whatever the turnout and relative votes for the different lists, the result cannot and will not reflect the popular will over the most important issue facing the country: the occupation.

Opinion polls show most Iraqis want foreign troops to leave. But none of those with a chance of being elected support such a demand. Without foreign troops, they would fear for their own skins.

None of this should come as a shock. Phoney polls under foreign occupation have a long pedigree. Take the US regime in South Vietnam, where fraudulent but contested elections were held from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Just as in Iraq, newspapers were suppressed and parties staged boycotts or were banned, while polling was often suspended in Vietcong-controlled areas — or the government won a miraculously high vote.

The credibility of Iraq’s poll is so flagrantly in doubt, it is no wonder that there is pressure both from within the US administration and prominent Iraqi politicians for a postponement. The danger is that the election won’t simply lack credibility, but could actually intensify Iraq’s crisis by fuelling sectarian divisions.

The combination of the effective truce with Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army while the US military concentrates its fire on the Sunni-based resistance, lack of Shia support for Fallujans during November’s onslaught and the commitment to the elections by the governing Shia parties, has strained relations. There are increasing fears among Iraqis that the US is deliberately fostering tension to divide and rule.

The US-British occupation has failed to deliver Iraqis’ most basic needs and security, let alone their freedom. The resistance, dismissed as ”dead-enders” after the fall of Hussein, has mushroomed to the point where Iraqi intelligence puts it at 200 000-strong.

A senior US officer has told Newsweek ”we are losing” and the Pentagon is reaching into the sewer of its history for the ”Salvador option”: the use of local paramilitary death squads to wage a dirty war against the guerrillas.

Britain’s small band of occupation cheerleaders, who comprehensively lost the argument about the war, are now taking refuge in self-righteous denunciations of the Iraqi resistance, the very forces they helped bring into being by supporting the unprovoked invasion of an independent state.

They would do better to remind their friends that there can be no democracy without genuine sovereignty and self-determination. The only way to hold free and fair elections in Iraq — and draw the sting of mass resistance — is for the aggressor states to withdraw and let the Iraqis run their own affairs. — Â