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Analysis: To Delay Or Not To Delay Iraq's Elections

Interim government officials this week rejected calls by Sunni-led oppositionists to delay national elections in January by up to six months (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 7 December 2004). Several political parties, including the Iraqi Islamic Party, met in Baghdad on 5 December and demanded that the elections be postponed for six months. "All those who want elections to be held are Shi'ites. However, not all Shi'ites are for holding the elections on 30 January. No Arabs or Sunnis demand that the elections be held on 30 January because the security situation is not suitable in the Arab Sunni cities and communities," Al-Jazeera quoted Iraqi Homeland Party head Mish'an al-Juburi as saying.

President Ghazi al-Yawir said on 5 December that an election delay would increase resentment within the Iraqi community. "The worst thing we can do is to postpone the elections, because it will be a tactical victory for the rebels and dark forces. Therefore, I have formed a political movement and entity to encourage all Iraqi sects to participate, so that the silent majority in Iraq can have its say," al-Yawir said in Washington, Al-Jazeera reported.

Al-Yawir's comments came just one day after United Nations special adviser Lakhdar Brahimi said that elections in Iraq could not be held if the security situation remains as it is, the Dutch newspaper "NRC Handelsblad" reported on 4 December. Brahimi contended that Sunnis would be "denied a right" if elections were not held in all parts of the country due to insecurity. He criticized the approach of the United States and the Iraqi interim government in dealing with the insurgency, saying: "If the United States and Prime Minister [Iyad] Allawi kill 50 people whom they regard as their enemies and, by this action, incite 500 others to join the rebellion, this is no improvement."

Government officials have argued that postponing the elections may have little effect on the insurgency. Husayn al-Hindawi, head of the Iraqi Election Commission, told the Baghdad daily "Al-Manar al-Yawm" in an interview published on 5 December, "I emphasize that the security situation will be more difficult than it is now if the elections are not held or if they are postponed."

Regarding a possible boycott of elections by some political parties, he said: "A boycott is a democratic right. Several political parties in the world have boycotted their countries' elections. However, we urge everyone to participate in the elections since this is a national duty. The commission is not a guardian to those who boycott or [participate in] the elections. Nevertheless, we believe the majority is in favor of participation and this explains the high demand by political entities to register for the elections." Al-Hindawi said that no party had formally requested an election postponement, and contended that no party in Iraq or the UN has the power to decide on a postponement.

Al-Hindawi later said that he believed that the parties advocating an election delay were beginning to change their position, Baghdad's "Al-Bayan" reported on 7 December. "This development prompts a sense that the elections will be held on the planned date" with broad-based participation, he said. But he then contended that the commission might consider a request to postpone national and local elections should the interim government issue a formal request, Al-Jazeera reported on 9 December. Those comments followed reports a day earlier that interim Prime Minister Allawi told a French newspaper that elections could be staggered over several days to allow for better security. "One can imagine elections spread out over 15 or 20 days, with the dates differing according to the provinces," Reuters quoted Allawi as telling France's "Le Temps" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2004). Allawi spokesmen denied on 9 December that the prime minister made such a suggestion, claiming instead that his comments were misinterpreted. The Interior Ministry, however, had already come out in support of the proposal. Reuters quoted an unidentified ministry spokesman as saying that staggering the voting would "improve security because people would not rush to vote and form long lines that could be attacked."

Western media have suggested this week that any postponement or delay in elections would anger Shi'ite political parties. However, the Shi'a are well aware that an election without Sunni participation would not be interpreted by observers as being all-inclusive and representative of the population. Shi'ite leader Husayn al-Shahristani, who helped create the Shi'ite dominated United Iraqi Alliance list this week, acknowledged to reporters this week that the issue was cause for concern, reported on 10 December. Al-Shahristani reportedly acknowledged that a staggered election might be necessary to ensure widespread Sunni participation.