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Iraq: Rocky Road To Elections Almost Two Years After Invasion

Iraq's election on 30 January comes almost two years after the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. The road to elections has been -- and remains -- full of uncertainties, including whether Iraq's once dominant Arab Sunni minority will turn out for the polls. RFE/RL looks back at the road traveled thus far -- from the toppling of Hussein to rid Iraq of its presumed weapons of mass destruction to efforts to guide the country to a more democratic future.

Prague, 25 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The war to topple Saddam Hussein began with this announcement on 29 March 2003 by U.S. President George W. Bush: "On my orders, coalition forces have begun striking selected targets of military importance to undermine Saddam Hussein's ability to wage war. These are the opening stages of what will be a broad and concerted campaign."

Three weeks later, Hussein's regime fell.

But if the rapid defeat of the Iraqi Army gave the U.S. intervention a successful start, subsequent events revealed the extent of the challenges still ahead. As Hussein's security apparatus crumbled, widespread looting broke out, undermining public confidence that the allied forces were bringing a better future.

At the same time, Hussein loyalists, as well as Islamic militants and self-described nationalists, launched a guerrilla war to sabotage reconstruction efforts.

Within months, Washington also found itself embroiled in Iraq's domestic political fights as it sought to guide post-Saddam Iraq to a more democratic future.

Among its first steps was appointing mostly formerly exiled political leaders to an interim Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). That angered some other Iraqi leaders who had opposed Hussein but never left the country. Among those was radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who launched a rebellion.

The top U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, General Mark Kimmitt, described some of the fighting that resulted in May 2004: "In Baghdad, coalition forces conducted offensive operations [on 9 May] in Sadr City to reduce attacks and the overall presence of the Muqtada militia. Starting at [2 a.m.] last evening, coalition forces conducted a cordon and search in conjunction with the destruction of the Sadr bureau building, to deny its future use by Muqtada militia members. Coalition forces observed numerous counts of RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] fire from the alleyways directed at their elements as they approached the Sadr bureau and encountered numerous other engagements during the early morning."

Al-Sadr's rebellion coincided with a separate uprising by insurgents in the Sunni city of Al-Fallujah, bringing fighting across central and southern Iraq.

The widespread fighting was the first big test for U.S.-led forces since the invasion and foreshadowed a second, almost identical round of combat in Al-Fallujah and with al-Sadr's followers in southern Iraq late in 2004.

Amid such crises, the U.S. made several key changes to its strategy for Iraq's development. One was to shorten the period of its civil administration of Iraq from an initially discussed time frame of up to several years to just a little more than one year. The other was to abandon efforts to convene a caucus of Iraqi leaders selected on a representative, regional basis to choose Iraq's first post-Hussein sovereign bodies of government. Instead, it let the U.S.-appointed IGC create a sovereign caretaker government to lead the country to the first round of direct elections that will take place on 30 January.

The decision to proceed quickly to a direct election was in response to strong pressure from Iraq's Shi'a majority -- particularly preeminent cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. But it carries high political risks. That is because the direct elections are almost certain to bring the Shi'a -- some 60 percent of the population -- to power after decades of Sunni dominance.

It remains unclear to what extent the Sunnis are ready to accept such a result. Some community leaders have called for boycotting the election, saying it will turn power over to the Shi'a. Some political leaders have withdrawn from the race, citing security concerns while others are participating.

On 27 December, the head of the Sunni mainstream Iraqi Islamic Party, Muhsin Abd al-Hamid, announced his party's withdrawal. "We announced our withdrawal and not boycott [of the elections]. We already announced we would take part in these elections under certain conditions," he said. "These conditions were not met. The elections will not be 'general' until they cover all parts of Iraq."

With the extent of Sunni participation still uncertain, there is some talk in Washington and Baghdad about finding a way to draw Sunnis into the postwar political system if the poll fails to do so.

One senior Shi'a politician, interim Planning Minister Mahdi al-Hafidh, called yesterday for finding a strategy of "national reconciliation" after the 30 January vote. "The national interest requires the adoption of a strategy for national reconciliation for the post-election period," he said. "Under such a strategy, it is very important to include all elements who believe in a new democratic experience in Iraq."

The U.S.-led intervention in Iraq continues to be watched with concern in Europe and elsewhere in the world, where criticism of the 2003 invasion remains high after no weapons of mass destruction were found.

EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana yesterday said it would be a "disaster" if the Sunnis do not participate in this weekend's vote. "I don't think that Iraq could be stable if the Sunnis do not participate in the political process," he said. "And, therefore, if they do not participate in these elections, they have to make -- we have to make, everybody has to make -- all the efforts to get them to participate in the drafting of the new constitution and the new electoral process [following the constitution]."

The United Nations approved holding the 30 January vote as part of the transition plan for Iraq it endorsed in a resolution in June that welcomed Washington's return of sovereignty to Iraq.

On 30 January, Iraqis will directly elect a National Assembly that will chose the next interim government and oversee the writing of the country's first post-Hussein constitution. Iraq is due to hold a nationwide referendum in October to approve the new constitution. It is also to hold an election before the end of the year to replace the government chosen by the National Assembly with a constitutional government directly elected by the people.

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