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Polls of Fear

by PATRICK COCKBURN

Baghdad.

The Iraqi election on 30 January, for which campaigning began last week, will be one of the most secretive in history. Iraqi television shows only the feet of election officials rather than their faces, because they are terrified of their identity being revealed. It will be a poll governed by fear.

Those fears were amply borne out yesterday when insurgents launched attacks on election offices in northern Iraq. Two people were killed and eight wounded when mortars landed on an election office in Dujail, one of many around the country registering and educating potential voters. Two Iraqis were killed in execution-style shootings and four American contractors were wounded by a roadside bomb in other incidents.

When Iyad Allawi, the interim Prime Minister, announced his slate of candidates for the 275-member National Assembly in Baghdad last week, it was to a small audience of American security guards. The venue had been changed at the last minute to baffle potential assassins, and foreign journalists deemed it too dangerous to attend.

Shopkeepers distributed registration forms, tucked into the bags of monthly rations on which most Iraqis depend for survival. In Sunni districts in Baghdad some shopkeepers, fearing execution by the resistance, had begged their customers not to reveal where they got the forms.

There is now little doubt that the elections will go ahead. The Sunni political powers, fearing mass abstention by their constituents, would like a delay. But they could provide no convincing argument that the security situation will be any better in six months. Hoshyar Zebari, the powerful foreign minister, argued that “a delay in holding the election would be taken as a sign of weakness”, and the interim government is doing what it can to manipulate public opinion.

Announcements that former members of the Saddam regime will go on trial this week, starting with the notorious “Chemical Ali”, Ali Hassan al-Majid, are seen as electioneering more than anything else. The same applies to news yesterday that judges had begun interrogating him and another top suspect.

It is doubtful if the election, at least at first, will mark a real change in the balance of power between the three main communities in Iraq: the Shia, the Sunni and the Kurds. Nor is it likely to see a shift in authority from the US to Iraqis. The outcome could simply be a photocopy of the present government.

Few votes will be cast in the Sunni cities, towns and villages strung along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers north of Baghdad. Even if voters did want to go to the polls, it would be extremely dangerous to do so in places where anybody seen co-operating with the US is a target.

American and British officials persistently underestimate the extent to which all of Iraq is unstable. President George Bush and Tony Blair genuinely appear to believe that there are only limited trouble spots in Iraq and the rest of the country is at peace. Since the beginning of the insurgency, Washington and London have portrayed it as confined to the so-called “Sunni triangle” west and north of Baghdad. The phrase is designed to minimise the extent of the uprising, but in reality there is guerrilla warfare in all the Sunni towns and cities as well as Baghdad.

As US generals were issuing triumphant claims of victory in Fallujah, with a population of 300,000, last month they lost control of Mosul, 250 miles to the north, with a population of 1.2 million. The unexpected insurgent uprising on 10 November, which led to the disintegration of the 8,000-strong police force, was clearly planned to take advantage of the US assault on Fallujah on 8 November.

In the most militant cities there is no sign of insurgent activity diminishing: Every day there are attacks on US and interim government forces in Baiji, Baquba, Ramadi, Samarra and Tal Afar. Fallujah itself is far from subdued. Ayham al-Samarrai, the minister of electricity, told The Independent on Sunday that it would be difficult to hold fair elections in provinces with a total population of eight million – a third of the Iraqi population.

Most serious of all is the situation in Baghdad. US military briefings give the impression that Fallujah has been the heart of the uprising since the invasion. In reality the deadliest location for a US soldier in Iraq is Baghdad, where 240 US troops have been killed since March last year, more than twice as many as in Fallujah. It is the capital that may witness the most violence as the election gets closer.

Whatever the outcome of the poll, the five million Sunni in Iraq are numerous enough to continue the uprising. The feeling that their community is being disenfranchised may increase support for the resistance. Because all Iraq is being treated as a single constituency, the Sunni may have few representatives. Had each of the 18 provinces in Iraq been allocated a set number of deputies to the National Assembly, then the Sunni provinces would be represented, despite a low turnout.

Voters will go to the polls in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Shia districts of Baghdad, and in southern Iraq. Ever since the US invasion overthrew Saddam Hussein in April last year, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has demanded an election in which the Shia could show that they make up between 15 and 16 million of the 25 million Iraqi population.

But power in Iraq today grows out of the barrel of a gun. When Dr Hussain al-Shahristani, the highly respected and influential nuclear scientist tortured and imprisoned by Saddam Hussein, announced the Shia electoral list earlier this month, it was in the Convention Centre in the Green Zone in Baghdad, protected by US soldiers.

Ayatollah Sistani, the most influential Shia religious leader, is behind the Shia list, but it is not quite clear how far behind. The list may not elect 120 to 130 members of the National Assembly, as it expects.

The Shia leaders, though they have agreed an electoral pact, are deeply divided. At the head of the list is Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a party long based in Iran. Perhaps the most popular politician in Iraq is Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the head of one of factions of the Dawa party. But the list also includes Ahmed Chalabi, once the choice of the Pentagon to be the new leader of Iraq.

Mr Allawi, the surprise choice as interim Prime Minister, could go on holding the job, for the same reason he got it in the first place: the main players can live with him. The most important of these is the US. “There is simply no one else on whom the National Assembly could reach consensus,” a senior official from a leading Shia party was quoted as saying. “Kurds would rather deal with Allawi than an Islamist Shia. So would Sunnis. We also realise that an Islamist Shia prime minister is a red line for the Americans.”

But Mr Allawi has shown that he looks first of all to Washington for instructions. He supported the assault on Fallujah, despite the bloodshed. Militarily he is dependent on the US army. This might not damage him in the eyes of many Iraqi voters if he had satisfied their desire for security or improved the supply of electricity and fuel. Unfortunately for him the shortages are getting worse.

The police and the National Guard lack legitimacy. Often they are not prepared to fight the resistance. During the uprising in Mosul last month, the insurgents captured 10 police stations, some of them simply by phoning ahead and telling the police to get out.

The problems for the US and the interim government will be largely unchanged after the election. The Sunni will not stop their uprising while the occupation continues. The government will still depend on American guns to defend it. The differences between the three main Iraqi communities are increasing, and the war will go on.

 

 

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

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