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Iraq: Debate Grows Over Shape Of Elections In January

  • Charles Recknagel

Questions are growing over whether Iraq will be able to hold fully nationwide elections in January as part of its planned transition to a more democratic system of government. Top U.S. officials are increasingly saying the poor security situation in parts of the country might exclude those areas from participating in the poll. The statements are sparking new political debate in the United States over how well Washington is meeting its goals in Iraq.

Prague, 27 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush last week addressed the issue of holding Iraq's first round of elections in January.

"Remnants of the old regime and terrorist groups want to prevent Iraq's elections and demoralize Iraq's allies," Bush said. "Because of that, [interim Iraqi] Prime Minister [Iyad] Allawi and I believe terrorist violence may well escalate as the January elections draw near. The terrorists know that events in Iraq are reaching a decisive moment."

Increasingly, however, top U.S. officials are saying the elections might be less than nationwide due to Iraq's poor security situation.

Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Powell characterized the security situation in Iraq as deteriorating. He told reporters in Washington that "we are fighting an intense insurgency.... Yes, it's getting worse, and the reason it's getting worse is that they [insurgents] are determined to disrupt the election."

Powell said most areas of Iraq are secure enough to participate in elections even if they were held now. But he said other areas are not sufficiently under coalition control.

"Most of the country could have elections right now. And we know that because they are having [municipal-level elections now], and so they are ready to have national elections at the end of January," Powell said. "Just as Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said earlier this week, what we have to do is focus our attention on the Sunni Triangle where we have the greatest difficulty, to bring it under control."

Powell said the most stable areas of Iraq are in the north and south. But he said coalition and Iraqi forces face continuing challenges to their authority in the center of the country.

"It's within the Sunni Triangle that we have the problem and especially in certain parts of Baghdad and Sadr City," Powell said. "What's clear is the Iraqi people want to vote, and they should be given the opportunity to vote. And we cannot stand by and allow insurgents and terrorists to deny them that opportunity."

Powell's suggestion that there could be less than nationwide elections in January was echoed later the same day by America's top military commander in Iraq, General John Abizaid.

"Well, the reality check is such that I [hear] it from my commanders in the field. And my commanders in the field are confident about the military mission. They're confident about our ability to have an election period that is fair and relatively stable," Abizaid said. "We're under no illusions about the entire country being stable, and we're also under no illusions that the entire country is dangerous."

Abizaid added that he expects much violence before the voting as insurgents seek to derail the process. "I don't think we'll ever achieve perfection, and when we look for perfection in a combat zone, we're going to be sadly disappointed," Abizaid said.

But he predicted there will be voting in the "vast majority of the country."

The statements from U.S. officials that Iraq might have only partial elections in January worry some observers.

The U.S. daily "Los Angeles Times" said in an editorial today that the Bush administration appears to be lowering its goals for building democracy in Iraq, even as it claims to be succeeding in its efforts.

The editorial said that "despite continuing violence and instability, President Bush has stuck doggedly to his central message on Iraq: There is no need to change course because the administration's plan for planting democracy in the Middle East is working."

The paper added: "Yet behind the unwavering public posture, there is evidence that the Bush administration has altered its approach. It has lowered its hopes for the type of democracy that can be achieved."

The U.S. daily "The New York Times" warned in an editorial today that elections must be as widespread and fair as possible if they are to be seen as legitimate by the Iraqi populace.

"The New York Times" said, "If the elections cannot be held in much of the Sunni heartland and are boycotted elsewhere by Sunnis and [by] Shi'ite followers of [Grand Ayatollah Ali al-]Sistani, the prospects for holding Iraq together, let alone creating enough stability to withdraw U.S. troops anytime soon, would turn desperately bleak."

"The New York Times" said al-Sistani is increasingly concerned that the six ruling parties in Iraq -- largely comprising former exile groups -- might seek to dominate the poll by presenting a single unified list of candidates. That could dim prospects of independents winning in the balloting.

The January voting is to elect a transitional National Assembly. The National Assembly is to choose a transitional government to lead the country to direct election of a representative government by the end of 2005.

The election schedule was endorsed by the United Nations in a June resolution that welcomed the U.S. transfer of power to Iraq's first post-Saddam sovereign government earlier this year.

U.S. officials defend the possibility that Iraq could have less than nationwide elections by arguing it is better to hold even a partial election on time than no election at all.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put the argument this way at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington on 23 September: "Let's say you tried to have an election, and you could have it in three-quarters or four-fifths of the country. But in some places you couldn't because the violence was too great. Well, so be it. Nothing's perfect in life. So you have an election that's not quite perfect. Is it better than not having an election?"

The extent of Iraq's January elections -- and whether they meet U.S. goals in Iraq -- could become a major theme in American's presidential election, scheduled for 2 November.

Bush is campaigning partly on what he claims is the steady progress his administration is making toward creating a more democratic Iraq, one that might serve as a model for other countries in the region.

Democratic challenger John Kerry accuses Bush of minimizing the difficulties Washington is facing in Iraq. He told supporters at a rally in Florida recently that Bush "does not have the credibility to lead the world."
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