How To Save Iraqi Elections Reprint

How to Save the Iraqi Elections (Reprint Edition)

The following piece appeared in the Detroit News in early December:

Sunday, December 5, 2004

Bush policies set off skirmish on fate of Iraqi elections

Upcoming voting is headed toward train wreck unless U.S. sets aside legislative seats for Sunnis

By Juan Cole / Special to The Detroit News

The extended train wreck that has been American-dominated Iraq is wending its way toward a decisive intersection, the national elections scheduled for Jan. 30. The Bush administration strategy has been to attack and marginalize political forces that protest the American presence in the country, and to set the elections up on a national basis so as to exclude extremes.

But these two strategies have now backfired, creating a perfect storm of political peril. Security is so bad that voters standing in line at polling stations will likely take mortar or grenade fire, and elections may simply not be practical.

Even if voters navigate those dangers, another shoal lurks beneath their bow. Most of the Sunni Arabs deeply resent the U.S. military presence and reacted with outrage to the assault on Fallujah and the shooting by a Marine of a wounded guerrilla in a mosque. They can now take revenge on Bush by staying home on Election Day.

If the resulting parliament under-represents the Sunnis, the new government will lack legitimacy. The dangers were recognized by 15 small Sunni Arab parties, which recently argued that the elections must be postponed so they could have time to win over their constituents. They are said to have been joined in the plea by the two large Kurdish parties, though some other reports contested this allegation.

The United States and the interim government of Prime Minister Allawi rejected this plea for a postponement, as did over 40 Shiite parties and the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

It is even worse. The new parliament will double as a constitutional convention.

The members of parliament will have to make hard decisions about the fate of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which is claimed by both Kurds and Arabs, and about the place of religious law in the new state.

To exclude Sunni Arabs from such discussions is a recipe for civil war.

Most Sunni Arabs had been members of or supporters of the Baath Party. The Bush administration fired thousands of Baathists from their jobs, dissolved the Baath army and gave the Sunni Arabs the impression that the Americans intended aggressively to marginalize them. These moves helped stoke the persistent guerrilla war of the past 18 months.

The major post-Baath Sunni parties are religious, and include the Association of Muslim Scholars and the Iraqi Islamic Party. The popular AMS is urging a boycott of the elections.

Assuming the security problems do not prove fatal to the elections, they can now be salvaged politically only in one way. The interim government, which has already declared martial law, must pass a decree ordering a onetime set-aside of a generous 25 percent of seats for predominantly Sunni Muslim parties.

This sort of quota is regrettable, but it is the only solution to the crisis. It should not form a precedent, but rather should be done as an emergency measure just this once. Once the parliament meets to craft a constitution, it is important that it create an upper house that somehow over-represents the Sunni Arabs and Kurds, so as to prevent a tyranny of the Shiite majority.

The American-designed government, with a one-chamber legislature, ensures permanent Shiite dominance, likely by religious parties, which contains the seeds of future disaster for Iraq.

The Bush administration has committed a series of epochal blunders in Iraq.

Taking the risk that the Sunni Arabs will boycott the Jan. 30 elections, and failing to prepare for the possibility, would be another huge error.


Juan Cole teaches history at the University of Michigan and is the author of “Sacred Space and Holy War” (IB Tauris, 2002).

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