Desperation or Hope?

BAGHDAD—Tomorrow Iraqis go to the polls and, inshallah, will get a better government that they have right now… Eventually. But for now, Sunday’s vote is taking place at the intersection of optimism and desperation.

BAGHDAD — Tomorrow Iraqis will go to the polls and, inshallah, get a better government that they have right now… Eventually. But first they will have to vote, and that’s an activity fraught with peril.

The security situation is unreal. No cars tomorrow — except those with special passes, which includes media, cops, political guys, etc. in short, if you’re an insurgent and you hit a car tomorrow, you’re bound to get someone vaguely important. Only five polling stations in Baghdad will allow cameras or other electronic gear, so bear that in mind when you look at photographs of the election.

I’ll be out in the thick of it for a while at least… Out with my photographer and seeing what goes on. Not sure if I’ll be driving or walking. That will depend on my security guys. This is a free election? Insurgent pamphlets are being distributed that anyone walking to a polling center is a target. Several centers have already been blown up. The fear is thick enough to cut with a knife. The Iraqi security forces — with their American patrons — have tanks at the end of my street. Old Soviet T-55s, but tanks, nonetheless.

No one knows what’s going to happen, whether it’s the level of violence, the level of turnout or who will win. The Sistani-blessed United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) list is expected to do well, but I would be shocked if it got an absolute majority. My predictions for the elections:

The UIA list will get 30-35 percent, with the Kurdish list and Allawi’s list battling for second place. Allawi is polling much more strongly than I expected; his tough guy image plays well here and many, many Shi’a are suspicious of the UIA list, which is dominated by Shi’ites who spent time in Iran. Thousands of Shi’ites died to keep Iran from breaking through the Fao Peninsula in the 1980-88 Gulf War, and they’re not anxious to see the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution — widely seen as an Iranian cat’s-paw — come to power. Not too long ago, the Iraqi Interim Defense Minister, Hazim al-Shalaan, called the UIA list an “Iranian list.”

But, not surprisingly, Haadhi Al-Ahmeri, head of Badr Corps, more or less the military wing of SCIRI, took great umbrage with this. When I asked him about this, he drew himself up and scowled, saying Badr would not dignify the Defense Minister’s remarks with a reply. Then he went on to do just that.

“His statement was no different from statements from the former regime,” he said. “And as a result of that war, Iraq and Iran lost 100,000 men. The other result was to destroy the economies of Iraq and Iran. And after all of that Saddam admitted he was wrong.”

He paused and then said, “Does he, Shalaan, want another war with Iran? If he’s accusing Badr and SCIRI because they were in Iran, then where was he? If we’re agents of Iran, then he’s an agent of the country he lived in. Is Hazim Shalaan more popular in Iraq than Abdul Aziz Hakim and SCIRI? It’s a silly statement and it proves that he’s intellectually bankrupt. We don’t deny that we used to live in Iran. We would like to thank the Iranian government for their hospitality. And we would like to thank the Iranian people for their hospitality.”

(Not exactly a denial of Iranian influence now, is it?)

He went on to say that many Badr and SCIRI members were “martyrs” in the fight against Saddam’s regime and that the groups took pride in that. Then he said SCIRI and Badr were more popular with the Iraqi people. And finally, Shalaan is a liar when he says the Badr and other Shi’ite groups are behind the waves of assassinations in Iraq.

“Hazim Shalaan is telling lies to the Iraqi people,” he said. “Everyone knows that all the terrorism is done by the former mukhabarat people.” (Not entirely inaccurate — CA) They are more dangerous than Zarqawi, he said. “I’m not saying there are no foreign fighters,” he said, “but the financial support, training and sup-plies, logistical support — all of these things are from Ba’athists, from the mukhabarat.”

Who wins?

The UIA will get a plurality. Then Allawi or the Kudish list will be in second place with about 20 percent each. That leaves about 25 percent of parliament’s seats to be split among elder statesman Adnan Pachachi’s and president Ghazi Al-Yawer’s lists, as well as a number of minor lists including a Moqtada al-Sadr list and various tribal lists.

How this is going to work is the percentage of the vote a single list gets determines the percentage of seats in Parliament. If the UIA gets 30 percent of the vote, the top 82 slots of their list goes to Parliament. After the seats are allocated, the Parliament must choose a presidency council, with a 2/3 vote. The new council then selects a Prime Minister, who is approved by a simple majority vote in the chamber.

I’m going to go out on a limb here: I think Allawi will keep his job. The UIA list is a hodgepodge of Shi’a parties, both secular and religious. It’s a coalition for getting elected, but not for governing. Allawi’s list is more unified, with his Iraqi National Alliance party at the core. (Ahmed Chalabi and his Shi’a Political Council — the new version of the Iraqi National Congress — is on Sistani’s list.) I think once in Parliament, the UIA coalition will break, allowing Allawi to form a working coalition with the Kurds, al-Yawer and secular Shi’a parties from the UIA. This will give him the 2/3 votes he needs to form the presidency council, which will then go on to choose him as Prime Minister.

He could also end up being the compromise PM, when Dawa and SCIRI can’t agree. Allawi — a Shi’ite, secular but with no real ties to Iran — could be perceived as the least bad option. And flyers for the UIA list have been spotted that say, “if you like Allawi as Prime Minister, you can still vote for us.”

That’s not to say members of the UIA aren’t working to oust the old guy. Hussein Sharhistani, the former nuclear scientist and a serious contender for the Iraq’s prime minister slot if it’s not Allawi, was certainly robust in his criticism of the Prime minister.

“Iraqis were hoping that a government with authority to act and supported by the MNF would be able to improve the services for the people. But all the services have deteriorated measurably in the last eight months.

“He said his priority was security, and yet we see the security situation has deteriorated,” he said. “He has spent more time improving his own party membership.”

As for his own plans were he to find himself in Allawi’s seat, Sharhistani pointedly noted that he had been the first pick for Prime Minister job back in June 2003, but that he declined because he preferred to be elected rather than appointed. Like all good politicians, he expresses great reluctance for the power most plebeians would grasp after. And he continues to express his reluctance even as his eyes twinkle whenever the phrase “Prime Minister Sharhistani” is mentioned.

In the middle of all of this is the “campaign,” such as it is. Sharhistani said there was no current horse-trading between lists, but that some members of the Iraqi List — Iyad Allawi’s list — had misused their government positions to block legal campaigning by the UIA. He said he’s seen Iraqi police and National Guardsmen putting up posters of Allawi when they should have been working or, worse, intimidating UIA campaign workers and harassing them when they try to do the same. He added that such complaints were not widespread, however.

“Given that this is the first free election in Iraq’s history, one should expect some harsh words here and there,” he said archly. Then he proceeded to dish out some harsh words of his own, complaining that Allawi’s government was handing out “gifts” of cash to civil servants, students, teachers and others.

“The Iraqi people deserve a better democracy,” he said. “The exiles have lived in democratic countries and they know how they’re supposed to act.”

Then he whipsawed back to the generous mood of a man who thinks he will soon hold some power in his hands. Despite Allawi’s low-rent Boss Tweed-style politicking, it’s extraordinary that in the Arab world it’s being done at all. And also, it may not be enough! “It’s enough that the governing party is not going to be in the majority, but may not even be in second place.”

He predicts his own list to receive 40 to 50 percent of the vote.

“Why was it set up like this?” asks Hussein al-Mousawi, secretary of the Shi’a Political Council. “I don’t know why, but I know it was a mistake and it was a big mistake. And it’s going to let the Islamists have a majority.”

(He considers Sharhistani an Islamist, even though they’re both on the UIA list.)

Then al-Mousawi shifted to talking about where groups such as SCIRI are getting their support. In a word, Iran. Iran has long been suspected of supporting SCIRI and Dawa because of those groups’ Shi’a roots and long years in exile in Tehran. Appointing senior members like Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of SCIRI, and Jafari to strong positions of authority in the Iraqi Governing Council, and then in the interim government was a big mistake, al-Mousawi said, allowing these parties to use the levers of power to build their base of sup-port and reward their followers.

“Why has American been so stupid?” he asked. “It’s been the wrong structure from the beginning. It started with the Governing Council and just got worse from there. Why didn’t they support Chalabi? They should have supported democratic and liberal parties.”

Chalabi founded the SPC after his own Iraqi National Congress ran afoul of his enemies in the U.S. State Department and CIA, causing him to fall out of favor with the Americans. The suspicions of spying for Iran, lying about weapons of mass destruction and fiscal chicanery didn’t help either.

Americans are “foolish,” al-Mousawi said. “And they don’t understand what happens in Iraq.”

It is this attitude among the Chalabists and others on the UIA list that lead me to predict a split that will favor Allawi, who is anxious to win the election because he’s keenly conscious of his appointee-status and thinks that if he gets the voters’ nod, he will have the legitimacy to crack down on an insurgency that so far has resisted most efforts to contain it.

Democracy in Iraq is a “generations-long” effort, a U.S. official in Baghdad said, and the election is just the first step. “But it’s an event that needs to happen if you’re going to take the steps to see that democracy. You have to have these hopes. You need to believe you can get it done.”

The Sunni non-Vote

I have a bet with a Major in the American Special Forces here. He thinks Sunni turnout will be more than 50 percent; I don’t. He gets a free subscription to TIME if he wins. The stakes of the bet are low — for us — but for the Iraqis, they’re very high. If the Sunnis don’t turn out, the Parliament will be heavily weighted toward the Shi’ites and the Kurds. The Sunnis, already feeling the the tumbling feeling of falling from the seat of power they’ve occupied for centuries, will have less of a reason to back down and work at ending the insurgency, which is still a Sunni-dominated phenomenon.

“People in Mosul, Ramadi, Samarra want to participate, but they are scared,” said Dr. Sa’ad Abdul al-Razzak, a member of the executive committee for the Iraqi Independent Democrats, Pachachi’s group. No one will vote in Mosul, he said, because they are really scared. Security is the main thing, he said. “For this reason or another, they will not participate.”

He suspects few Sunnis would vote, and anecdotal evidence indicates that he will be proved correct. I’ve yet to meet a Sunni who plans to vote or has faith in the process. The concern among many is is that if the Sunnis don’t participate, the elections will be seen as illegitimate. “Many people from Arab countries will say this is not a correct election,” said al-Razzak.

Still, he doesn’t “necessarily” think there will be a full-scale civil war.

The U.S.’s insistence on the timetable mystifies al-Razzak. He said it grew out of the Nov. 15, 2003 agreement between Paul Bremer and the Iraqi Governing Council. He wanted mid-2005 for the election, but the IGC — which was heavily influenced by Kurds and Shi’ites, who have been pushing for the election the most — pressed for early elections.

“I know it is very important for Mr. Bush,” said al-Razzak. The Americans, he said, have only the relatively smooth experience of Afghanistan, which is very different from Iraq, he said. “They think they can do the same here. But this is our problem here. It’s important to restore security first.” He expects only 5 percent to 10 percent of the people to vote in the cities of Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujah, Baqoubah, parts of Baghdad and the provinces of Diyala.

What happens next?

Well, the constitution is next on the agenda, then ending the occupation. Parliament will convene a committee to draft the constitution which will be voted on in October. But what will it look like? Islamic? Secular? Something in between? And who will negotiate a withdrawal of American forces? What will the outlines of the Memorandum of Understanding look like?

First of all, don’t expect a timetable from the UIA leaders. Even though they said a timetable was a central part of their platform when they introduced the list in December, high-ranking members of the list have now backed off that demand, conditioning it instead on the efficacy of Iraqi security forces.

“There is no one around the world who would accept occupation,” said Badr’s Al-Ahmeri. “But in Iraq, we live in unusual circumstances. If they [the Americans] leave, a lot of serious problems will appear.”

After security is established, then the Americans will be asked to leave. “We should have security services to protect law and order,” he said. “Then, maybe, at the end of 2005, we can start a dialogue to set up a schedule.” Not exactly the full-throated “Yankee Go Home!” most of his supporters are asking for, according to multiple opinion polls.

And then, there’s the inclusion of Sunnis in the constitution-writing process. There’s no stipulation that members of the Constitutional Committee must be elected, so there’s a window of opportunity to bring in Sunni leaders, tribal leaders and any number of representatives who haven’t participated in this election. This is the one sliver of hope. If the U.S. can convince/encourage/threaten the anticipated Shi’a-Kurdish leadership to reach out out to Sunnis, Iraq’s new government might — might! — not be a complete disaster that collapses into civil war.

“The hope is, even they choose not to participate in this election, they will have other chances,” said the U.S. official. “It only gets really desperate if the constitution falls apart. And if it comes to that, we’ll have to start from zero. And that will make all this look like a walk in the park.”

Speaking like a man who’s already in office, Sa’ad Jawad, head of SCIRI’s political department, attempted to reassure me that there would be no Shi’a-Sunni retribution when the Shi’ites got their hands on the levers of power. “Even if we get 70 percent of the seats, we will not exercise our right unilaterally to decide who the next government will be,” he said, with an air of aggrieved generosity. This is not going to be a Shi’a government or a Sunni government or a Kurdish government or Arab government or whatever.”

What will the constitution look like?

This is a good question. There are elements in the coming government — cough, cough, I’m looking at you, Sharhistani and Al-Ahmeri — who say they don’t want a mullah-run system like Iran, but that any constitution must respect the Islamic values and identity of Iraq. Sharhistani said the Iraqi people will not accept any law that goes against their Islamic principles. He also dismissed the Transitional Administration Law (TAL) as a starting point, saying that although there were many good things in TAL, there were several points that were unacceptable. He referred to the “three province veto” clause that allows the rejection of the permanent constitution if 2/3rd of the electorate of three provinces vote it down. He also cautioned that requiring the presidency council to unanimously approve of all laws, allowed any singler person veto power over legislation.

But the basic point is that the TAL was imposed by the Americans. “The TAL was passed by an unelected group,” he said. “It was the best that could be done under the circumstances.”

Al-Ahmeri goes a bit further. If he equivocates on the urgency to end the occupation, he’s spirited in his insistence that the constitution will be Islamic. What exactly that means, however, is unclear. In short, don’t expect the TAL to be the baseline for the new national charter.

“The TAL is not a constitution,” he said. “It was just an agreement to run the current set-up.”

To succeed the TAL, he said, “we would like to make a constitution to include all facts of life.” He said that the new constitution would be Islamic. “There was agreement in London, Sulahadin and in the TAL that Islam should be the official religion and one of the main sources” of legislation.

“We should not make any laws that would be against Islamic shari’a,” he said. But, he added, “We don’t want an Islamic government.” (Huh? — CA)

And while he denies any plans for a theocratic regime along the lines of what’s in Tehran, he argues, “Islam contains the real, practical mean-ing that your country and countries in the West have.” The principles of Islam will be followed, he says, pointing to how marriage and divorce law will be handled as an example. “Of course, we will not write it according to American tradition. We will write it to follow Islam.” Islam, if you read the Qur’an, “makes women like queens,” he said. And he sees no need to take inspiration from elsewhere. “Islam is a wealthy religion,” he said. “You don’t needs to take from other sources.”

So? What about Sunday?

Tomorrow is shaping up to be a big day. Lots of security issues, worries about the future and general anxiety. Will the elections be successful? What would constitute successful? To be honest, I don’t know anymore. A high turnout would definitely help, but even that may not be enough if the Sunni don’t come to the polls and can’t be enticed into the constitutional process. One thing is certain though: The insurgency will continue unabated. Our sources in the insurgency — the Ba’athists and nationalists, not the jihadis — pledge that Sunday means nothing. As long as Iraq is occupied by Americans and their puppets, “brought in on the back of their tanks,” as the saying goes, the violence will continue. And since I don’t see the government changing much, I don’t see much changing in Iraq. The infrastructure will continue to limp along or deteriorate further, Americans and Iraqis will continue to die, in large numbers in the case of the latter. And Iraq will further disintegrate into a failed state.

Now, I may be surprised by the turns of events here. And Lord knows I’ve been wrong before. But from here in Baghdad, people are voting not because they want democracy, but because they’re grasping onto anything they think will help. For Iraqis, hope is fleeting and life is short. This isn’t optimism, it’s desperation, and that’s no basis for a democracy.

4 thoughts on “Desperation or Hope?”

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