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Despite challenges, Iraq elections seen as step to democracy

BAGHDAD, Iraq (BP)–While Iraq’s first multi-party parliamentary election in 50 years is scheduled to take place Jan. 30, a host of logistical, political, military and religious issues complicate the election process and raise questions as to whether Iraq will be able to sustain a democratically elected government, according to various news sources.

At the heart of the concerns is whether competing Shiite and Sunni Muslim factions will be able to govern cooperatively under a united Iraqi government. Conflicts between Shiites and Sunnis have led some to suggest that the election be postponed until a power-sharing agreement can be reached.

Despite difficulties in the election process, President Bush envisions the Jan. 30 polling date as a valuable opportunity for Iraq to establish a democratic society and contends it must be maintained.

“I think elections will be such an incredibly hopeful experience for the Iraqi people,” Bush told reporters Jan. 7. “Remember these are people that live in a society where if they didn’t toe the line of the leadership, they would be tortured or killed or maimed. And all of the sudden a new way of life is being introduced into Iraq.”

A number of Christians, meanwhile, see the elections as needing intense prayer, even a national prayer vigil. As one woman’s call to prayer put it, “pray for God’s will to be done in the elections and to put a blanket of protection around the voters, the Iraqi security forces, the coalition forces and the official nominees on election day.”

The Iraqi election will take place in 5,900 schools and other public buildings where an estimated 150,000 poll workers will pass out poster-sized paper ballots containing the names of candidates for a 275-seat Transitional National Assembly. After it is elected, the Transitional National Assembly will draft a new Iraqi constitution and oversee election of a national government to be held no later than Dec. 15.

Ballots will list more than 7,000 candidates representing more than 150 parties, political coalitions and other groups, according to the Scripps Howard News Service. After citizens vote, their fingers will be dipped into indelible ink as a means of ensuring that no one votes multiple times.

One difficulty with the voting process is that election officials remain uncertain about how many of the nation’s 13.9 million eligible voters will turn out Jan. 30 amid death threats by militant insurgents who have vowed to shut down the balloting. Another question mark is the extent to which paid poll workers will stay the course as the election approaches.

The main source of election opposition comes from Sunni Arabs, who make up approximately 20 percent of Iraq’s population. Sunnis worry that Shiites, who make up approximately 60 percent of Iraq’s population, will win the elections and dominate the Sunni minority and possibly enact a constitution based on Islamic law rather than democratic principles such as religious liberty.

Shiite Arabs in Iraq have long been dominated by the Sunni minority, particularly under the rule of Saddam Hussein, and the Shiites see elections as an opportunity to transform their majority status into political power for the first time. The Shiite-Sunni schism dates back to the death of Muhammad in 632 A.D., when some of his followers, now the Sunnis, embraced one of Muhammad’s trusted friends as their leader, while others, now the Shiites, turned to one of Muhammad’s relatives as their leader.

Sunni concerns have led to violent insurgency in Sunni-dominated areas in the central part of the country, and some Sunni leaders have called for a boycott of the election. The threat of violence and the call for a boycott has led to fears that a large number of Sunnis will fail to vote.

“Iraq’s population is about 60 percent Shiite, 20 percent Sunni and 20 percent Kurds,” Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and former adviser to the American occupation in Baghdad, told The New York Times. “But if Sunnis don’t vote, they could become only 5 percent of the electorate.”

Such marginalizing of Sunnis could lead to further alienation, increased insurgency and possibly civil war, especially if Shiite victors write a constitution that favors their interests over the Sunnis’, Diamond told The Times.

The possibility of continued Sunni-initiated violence has led some to suggest that elections should be postponed so that minority Sunnis can be convinced to participate. Sunni participation is important because without it, the election process could be seen as illegitimate by some countries in the world community.

But United States and Iraqi government officials argue that postponing the election would be giving in to a campaign of violence and terror. Officials also worry that postponing the election could provoke Shiites and result in an even larger campaign of violence.

“The insurgency is going to have to be defeated,” U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Jan. 9, “defeated by the reality that the Iraqi people now have a government that they elected and they can call their own.”

U.S. military forces in Iraq will protect voters from violent insurgents by supporting the elections with more than 35,000 troops, according to The Washington Post.

Candidates for the Transitional National Assembly include men and women holding a range of Islamic and secular viewpoints. Speaking on CNN Dec. 26, former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski echoed the concerns over the possibility that a “Shiite theocratic government, which is not going to be a genuine democracy” will win Iraq’s elections.

In response to the possibility of theocratic Shiite domination, some have suggested implementing policies that guarantee Sunnis a minimum number of top posts in Iraq’s future government. According to The New York Times, U.S. officials have spoken with Iraqi leaders about adding some of the top vote-receiving Sunni candidates to the legislature.

Despite all of the challenges, Bush is resolved that elections proceed on Jan. 30 in order to defeat those who fear freedom.

“I know it’s hard, but it’s hard for a reason,” Bush said. “And the reason it’s hard is because there are a handful of folks who fear freedom. … I look at the elections … as a historical marker for our Iraq policy.”
Art Toalston contributed to this article.