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Many voters may have been coerced to the polls
W hile the Bush administration and most Western media hailed Iraq’s January 30 elections as a democratic exercise, it’s becoming clear that it was anything but. For one, the elections were held in a country locked down under an iron-fisted occupation with few Iraqis having any idea of who or what they were voting for. Almost half of those surveyed thought they were voting for a president, rather than a national assembly and provincial legislatures. But most troubling is mounting evidence that many voters may have been coerced to the polls by threats to cut off their food aid.
Turnout was said to have been 60 percent of registered Iraqis voters, which would appear to vindicate the U.S.-administered process. However, rumors prior to the election warned that those who did not vote would lose their vital food rations. With a doubling of child malnutrition since the U.S. invasion and even reports of starvation, this was no small threat.
Iraqi election officials apparently decided that the election motto should be “vote or starve.” The Wa shington Post confirmed that some officials circulated rumors deliberately to “try to lure voters” to the polls. Khalaf Muhammed, the electoral commission official in charge of a polling station in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, said: “Even though we spread a rumor in the city saying anyone who doesn’t vote will be deprived of their food ration, only 10 people voted…mostly old men.”
The Post account added, “The rumor about food rations also was rife in the Sunni neighborhoods of Baghdad, gaining credence because voter registration rolls were taken from centralized records for the ration of rice, flour, oil, and other staples.”
Freelance journalist Dahr Jamail noted that during the registration period last November and December, Iraqis had to fill out registration forms to continue receiving rations. More damning evidence came on election day. Jamail interviewed numerous voters in Baghdad who described how the voting process was linked to food rations. Voters spoke of the presence of food ration agents in their polling centers and how their agent had to approve them before they could vote. One engineering student in Baghdad told Jamail: “Two of the food dealers I know told me personally that our food rations would be withheld if we did not vote.” Another Baghdadi told Jamail days before the election, “I’ll vote because I can’t afford to have my food ration cut.... If that happened, me and my family would starve to death.”
These threats made little difference to U.S. media cheerleading. Typical of the post-election headlines was one in the Chicago Tribune : “Iraqis defy insurgents, turn out in droves.” But this is inaccurate at best. Kurds, 95 percent of whom are Sunni, turned out overwhelmingly. Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq’s population, turned out in large numbers too. But if only 60 percent of Iraq’s 14.2 million registered voters cast ballots, this means many more Shiites rejected the polls along with the vast majority of Sunni Arabs, who comprise about 20 percent of the population. Many Sunni Arabs who spoke to reporters said they were opposed to an election held under occupation, a sentiment echoed by Shiite followers of radical cleric Moqtada Sadr. Many Sadr supporters also cited a lack of basic services as the reason why they sat out the polls.
like so many other aspects of the Iraq War, the flawed elections
are now part of the historical landscape. The “democratic”
process has moved on to horse-trading by victorious factions to
form a new government. Many of the 111 slates that participated
in the election are expected to send at least one candidate to Iraq’s
275-member transitional National Assembly, but 3 are expected to
dominate: the Kurdistan Alliance list, composed of the 2 main Kurdish
parties; the United Iraqi Alliance, endorsed by Grand Ayatollah
Ali Sistani; and the secular-based Iraqi List headed by interim
Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
It is from some combination of these three slates that a government will likely be formed, which will then oversee the drafting of a constitution. Yet the realization is dawning on the victors that the new government has many competing parties, personalities, and interests that may paralyze it.
One sensitive issue for many Iraqis is the fact that most of the leading candidates, especially for top government posts, are exiles. The New York Times notes that of the four Shiites who are angling for prime minister—Iraqi Finance Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi; Ibrhaim Jofferey, the head of the Dawa Party; Hussein Shahristani, a nuclear scientist; and the Pentagon’s former golden boy, Ahmad Chalabi—all are exiles. But Allawi, who is also an exile, is already maneuvering to keep his post.
Iraqis have high expectations that a new government can relieve their daily suffering stemming from the occupation, a lack of basic services, and unemployment that some estimate at a wrenching 70 percent.
Other than the Kurds, most Iraqi voters saw their ballot as a vote against the U.S. occupation. If a new government cannot solve the intertwined problems of insurgency, unemployment, lack of services, and corruption, then the two major groups that sat out the elections will be re-energized: Sunni Arabs, who form the backbone of the insurgency, and Sadr’s movement of poor, young, urban Shiites.
On the eve of the election, Baghdad was down to a few hours of electricity a day, gas lines stretched for up to two days, few could afford cooking gas or heating fuel for the winter nights, water was knocked out for almost a week, and there were reports of starvation. Much of the commercial traffic had been halted as Turkish truck drivers went on strike in December after dozens of them were killed in insurgent attacks.
The fuel shortages have reportedly been worsened by police and government officials siphoning off supplies for black-market profiteering. This is no surprise as regimes that exist only at the whim of an occupying power are riddled with cronyism and corruption because the officials only represent their own interests.
While Allawi’s slate benefited from his image as a ruthless strongman in the car-bombing capital of the world—a massive ad budget and nightly coverage on the Pentagon-funded Al Iraqiya, said to be the only television network with national exposure—many Iraqis are angered at pervasive corruption in the government. (Ahmad Chalabi, derided Allawi’s strong showing as “a Madison Avenue mandate.”) Allawi didn’t seem to be hurt by his underlings handing out $100 bills to Iraqi journalists who attended his press conferences. It might have even resulted in the desired affect of more favorable coverage. But such is the democracy that the Bush administration has bequeathed to Iraq.
Lost in the hoopla was a U.S. government report issued just after the election revealing that from April 2003 to June 2004, the U.S. occupation force could not account for some $8.8 billion in funds doled out to Iraqi ministries. Now with access to billions in annual oil revenue, newly elected officials will undoubtedly dole out more patronage to supporters.
Corruption was a major issue in the run-up to the vote in Basra where the Washington Post’ s Anthon y Shadid revealed disenchantment with religious rule. Basra is a stronghold of Shiite political parties, but residents raised familiar complaints of sewage in the street, electricity down to an hour a day, and a lack of clean water. Many blamed the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Scriri), which controls the city council and mayoralty and said they would vote for opposition parties instead.
Even if the United Iraqi Alliance walks away with an outright majority, the seats will be divided among competing parties that will struggle to maintain unity. Ashraf Khlali writes in the Los Angeles Times , “Composed of members of the Dawa Party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Hezbollah, the Iraqi National Congress and followers of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the alliance incorporates not only rival political factions, but ideologies that differ on the relationship between religion and state.”
The Sciri and Dawa are well-known rivals and there is already concern that less-committed members of the Alliance slate will strike deals with other parties. Because the U.S. occupation authority saddled the new assembly with a rule requiring a two-thirds majority to pick a president who then picks the party and prime minister to form the government, there will inevitably be considerable jockeying and backroom deal-making, hardly what Iraqi voters endorsed.
Perhaps the new government’s most contentious issue is a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. and foreign forces. The main problem is that the Kurdish parties strongly support the presence of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil and Allawi depends on the same forces to keep him in power and has spoken out against a timetable. Iraqis as a whole oppose the presence of U.S. forces—more than 80 percent of Sunni Arabs want them removed as do nearly 70 percent of Shiites.
In what may have been a pre-emptive strike against these wishes, the director of U.S. Army operations, Lt. Gen. James J. Lovelace, announced just days before the vote that the Army plans to keep its current level of 120,000 troops in Iraq unchanged through 2006 (there are another 30,000 U.S. Marines, Air Force, and Naval personnel in Iraq). This was reiterated by the Bush administration. According to the Washington Post , the White House would only commit to removing 15,000 troops in 2005 “under optimal conditions.” Yet the occupation has been anything but optimal, with U.S. forces steadily increasing since toppling Hussein’s government in 2003.
A new government will also have to negotiate vexing issues surrounding the religious nature of the constitution and federalism, which the Kurds are demanding, versus a strong central government, which Sistani is expected to back. Even though Sistani is an adherent of the “quietist” school that argues against the direct involvement of clergy in politics, as in Iran, his presence will be felt during the drafting phase of the constitution. Newsday’s able Iraq correspondent Mohamad Bazzi summarized the problem: “Al-Sistani is especially keen to have a role in shaping the new constitution, which is supposed to be drafted by mid-August and put to a national referendum by October 15. He is concerned about two issues: the role of Islam in Iraqi society and the extent of the political autonomy that would be granted to Kurds in northern Iraq.
“The ayatollah wants Islam to be declared the country’s official faith and Islamic law to infuse civil laws. He is also resistant to giving Kurds a veto power over the constitution, as they currently have under an administrative law put in place by the U.S. occupation.”
Under the law, the constitution can be rejected if two-thirds of the voters in any three of Iraq’s eighteen provinces cast ballots against the draft. The Kurds effectively hold veto power as they control three provinces. As Sunni Arabs are a majority in another four provinces, they can potentially scuttle the constitution if they feel it enshrines Shiite influence.
While the elections are being touted as a blow against the insurgents, few believe they are going to disappear. Many observers were perplexed that the insurgents did not live up to promises of creating chaos nationwide. The number of deaths during election day was reported to be around 50, which is less than the toll of many of the deadliest car bombs during the past two years. The New York Times attributed it to the lockdown across the country—a ban on driving and travel between provinces, a nationwide curfew, suspension of the cell-phone network (the only working phone system), sealing of borders, shutting down Baghdad’s international airport, and the deployment of 300,000 foreign and Iraqi forces throughout the streets.
Yet the real story may have been beforehand. U.S. military officers told the Times that they had captured or killed 30 to 50 percent of the names on lists of targeted insurgents in pre-election raids. It’s a good chance these lists are highly inaccurate given that the Red Cross noted earlier in the occupation that some 90 percent of detainees in Abu Ghraib had nothing to do with the insurgency. But there was clearly a U.S. effort to sweep up huge numbers of Sunni Arab males starting in the fall. A Washington Post report from November 26 noted, “Since early October, the number of detainees in U.S. custody has grown by about 4,000 as a result of assaults on insurgents in Samarra, Fallujah, Mosul, north Babil province, and elsewhere…” One Iraqi general told the Guardian days before the poll that another “2,000 suspected insurgents” had been seized across Iraq in January alone. Other reports stated that U.S. prison camps were bursting at the seams with new prisoners.
These raids, concentrated in areas where Sunni Arabs predominate, were conducted right through election day. The Interior Ministry told Reuters that it had seized more than “200 suspected insurgents” on January 30. Typical of these raids, 129 of the detainees came from one area—Tikrit, Hussein’s hometown. This was indicative of the U.S. role during the election. In Sunni Arab areas, U.S. troops were actually combining raids and military operations with a get-out-the-vote campaign. A story in the Washington Post about 1st Lt. Nainoa K. Hoe, who was killed by sniper in Mosul in January, noted (without a hint of irony) that he was leading a group of “soldiers armed with assault rifles and election fliers…trying to get Iraqis to embrace democracy.”
In Mosul and other Sunni Arab cities, the U.S. military employed a self-defeating election-day tactic of blaring get-out-the-vote messages from the same armored vehicles that have been terrorizing the populace. U.S. troops even conducted insurgent raids in Mosul during election hours and counseled fearful residents to cast ballots. Needless to say, turnout among Arabs in Mosul was minimal, a story repeated elsewhere.
In Samarra, a city of 200,000 that was called a “model” for how U.S. forces could take back insurgent territory, fewer than 1,400 ballots were cast. As in many Sunni areas, it was a cynical exercise. Reuters noted “many Samarra residents resented the fact” that the vote total included Shiite soldiers and police who were recruited from the South and “allowed to vote in their city.” The turnout was even more dismal in Ramadi, a city of 400,000. According to an unofficial tally, just 1,700 ballots were cast, a total that also included imported police and soldiers. Vote totals in Al Anbar province, which includes Ramadi and Fallujah, were put at 15,000. Half of those were said to come from Fallujah, which has seen its pre-invasion population of 250,000 reduced to 10,000. The Fallujah vote total may have been boosted by stationing polling places “at centers where residents whose homes were devastated by the offensive have been receiving food, water and cash payments,” according to the LA Times .
There is much talk of including Sunni Arabs in the political process, but it is uncertain that Sunnis who have legitimacy among their community would join the government and there is no clear mechanism by which to select them. Even the Associated Press observed, “Such a gesture is certain to lure figures without a genuine base of popular support, widely dismissed as American stooges.”
The irony in the Bush administration’s trumpeting of the Iraq elections as vindication of its Iraq and broader Mideast policies is that it never wanted elections in the first place. It was Sistani who forced the hand of occupying U.S. forces. He issued a religious decree in June 2003 that those who drew up Iraq’s new constitution must be elected not appointed. This was followed by another fatwah five months later stating that the transitional government must be elected.
To drive home the point, Sistani made voting a religious duty. This is what led to the large turnout among Shiites. Sistani was the big winner in the vote. While Sistani has worked with U.S. forces (cooperated or collaborated depending on the perspective), his goal is the same as Sadr’s and the insurgents: removal of U.S. and other foreign forces.
The difference between the three groups is how to achieve that—the Sunni insurgents have settled on armed rebellion, Sadr on mass-based street protests, and Sistani and the other three grand ayatollahs in Najaf on elections. “Sistani has played it brilliantly,” one unnamed Western diplomat told the Guardian . “By reining in his radicals and going for elections, power is falling into the Shia lap.”
M any observers fear that the elections may spark a civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, but Dr. Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan, says this is unlikely. Cole, who specializes in Shiite politics, says that while “the dangers of ethnic conflict are very real in Iraq, Iraqis seem to me to be committed to the unity of the country.” Apart from one incident in December when a Shiite force dubbed the Fury Brigades attacked Sunni insurgents south of Baghdad, there hasn’t been the type of ethnic-based militia battles that characterized civil wars in Lebanon and the Balkans.
However, Cole notes that among the insurgents—who he says are “95 percent Iraqi” and made up of former Iraqi army elements, Baathists, and extreme Sunni Arab Muslims known as Salafis—there are some who are stoking inter-ethnic conflict. Cole says some insurgents would like to “provoke Sunni-Shiite mob violence to destabilize the country,” rendering the country ungovernable and forcing out the U.S.
Shiites who follow the four grand ayatollahs have not taken the bait, though, sensing that they can gain political power through the elections. Cole expects the Shiites to reach out to Sunni groups (though not Baathists) in drafting the new constitution.
Additionally, says Cole, because the United States has made clear that “Iraq is going to be ruled by Shiite Ayatollahs and Kurdish warlords…Sunnis oppose that to a man.” Sunni insurgents who form a deposed elite have little to gain from supporting a government dominated by Shiites and Kurds.
It is in the North where civil war is a real possibility. Coles says while the Shiites don’t talk about revenge, “the Kurds sometimes do.” Plus, Kurdish leaders are pushing for political autonomy and control over vast oil reserves around Kirkuk—putting them in conflict with Shiite leaders who favor a strong central government. The ethnic stew is more complex in the North, with large populations of Arabs and Turkmen opposed to Kurdish hegemony. Turkey, which invaded northern Iraq in the 1990s, has reportedly drawn up plans to do so again as armed Kurdish separatists from Turkey have found refuge there.
If a new government is fractured by the rivalries of competing parties and personalities, it will be incapable of dealing with rising anger over unemployment and the lack of services and security. Additionally, the new government will also be operating under U.S.-imposed laws on everything from national security to economic policy, and it will certainly have no authority over U.S. forces in Iraq.
In all likelihood, 2005 will determine if the insurgency can be isolated or if it will spread. If it spreads, the impact will be felt in the wider region, on the U.S. project to reconfigure in the Middle East, and even on Bush’s sweeping agenda for a second term.
A.K. Gupta is a former editor of the Guardian Newsweekly and is currently a staff member of the Indypendent .
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