On 23 November, at a conference in the Egyptian town of Sharm al-Shaykh, the USA succeeded in getting the assent of Iraq’s neighbour states, including Iran and Syria, and of the G8 big powers, including France and Russia, for its plans in Iraq.
This makes it pretty certain that the Iraqi elections planned for 30 January will go ahead, short of Armageddon. Whether they produce anything stable or workable is another question.
The conference statement urged “the interim Iraqi government to continue with the political process by holding general elections before the end of January 2005. This is in order to form an interim National Assembly, which will assume a number of responsibilities, including the formation of an interim government in Iraq and the drafting of a permanent constitution for Iraq that would lead to the formation of a constitutionally elected government by 31 December 2005 according to the timetable approved by [UN] Security Council Resolution 1546”.
It also “reiterated that the mandate of the multinational forces in Iraq is not open-ended and that it would end, as stipulated in Paragraphs 4 and 12 of Security Council Resolution 1546, with the completion of the political process”.
Shia groups in Iraq have campaigned hard against any delay of the elections. Under the auspices of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, they are forming a pan-Shia electoral alliance, drawing in Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. They plausibly hope to win a majority in January elections.
There are plenty of problems with the planned elections, starting with the fact that the pan-Shia electoral alliance will make them a sectarian head-count among large sections of Iraq’s Shia majority.
Though the Shia fundamentalist militias are currently collaborating with the occupation, they are still armed and dangerous. Intimidation of voters is likely.
In fact divisions are hardening everywhere: the Kurdish nationalist parties are negotiating a “secular” list which will in fact be all-Kurdish.
The most explosive problem, however, is the risk that voting will be impossible in Sunni areas because of heavy militia violence, or that large numbers of Iraq’s Sunni Muslim Arabs (estimated at around 20% of the population, but politically dominant throughout the entire existence of the Iraqi state) will boycott the poll.
An elected government which marginalises the Sunnis would probably find itself faced with large-scale armed revolt.
Adnan Pachachi, an elderly secular Sunni politician who has generally cooperated with the USA while retaining some popular credit in Iraq, led a call on 27 November for postponing the election. His call was supported by important elements of interim prime minister Iyad Allawi’s own Iraqi National Accord.
The Iraqi Islamic Party, Iraqi offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and the most important of the Sunni groups which have cooperated with the USA, withdrew from the Interim Government after the US attack on Fallujah and said it may well boycott the elections if they are not postponed.
The IIP’s stance reads more like a gambit for concessions or guarantees from the USA than a hard commitment to boycott. Its “withdrawal” from the Interim Government is not quite what it seems. The IIP’s member in the Interim Government, industry minister Hashem al-Hassani, has not resigned. He and the IIP have only said that he will not be participating in IIP party life for the time being.
The Iraqi National Foundation Conference (INFC), on 15 November, launched a definite appeal for boycotting the elections.
This group includes the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS), but is led by Shaykh Muhammed Jawad Al-Khalisi, a Shia cleric who lived in exile in London during Saddam’s rule.
According to leftist Iraqi exile Yahia Said, writing for Open Democracy: “Others in this organisation include Arab nationalists, ex–Ba’athists who broke with Saddam’s Ba’ath party in the 1970s-1980s. They could be described as the political arm of the nationalist element of the insurgency…
“They have condemned all terrorist acts against civilians and fellow-Iraqis, including for example car-bombings and execution of members of the National Guard. But they do in principle support the insurgency…
“These people are not angels. They are the moderate wing of a very radical Iraqi insurgency which includes some militant Islamists, extremists and figures with clear links to the Ba’athist past”.
“But they did make conciliatory moves”, adds Said, in a statement of 27 October setting out conditions under which they would participate in the elections: withdrawal of US troops from cities for a month before elections, the lifting of any restrictions on parties selecting candidates, the inclusion of members of all competing parties in the electoral commission, and supervision of the elections by the UN or an Arab and Islamic group.
Said interprets that statement as “an offer of ceasefire”.
Plausible elections, even if they produce a government of an uneasy Islamist-Kurdish coalition tempered only by commitments to observe at least a few democratic rights, would be likely to ease conditions for Iraq’s hard-pressed new labour movement. To applaud the Iraqi National Foundation Congress's call for a boycott — in the name, effectively, not of any available better democratic alternative, but of continued Islamist war — would be wrong.
Given the record of the last 19 months, however, no-one can have any confidence in the willingness of the US authorities to listen to Iraqis saying things not known in their neo-conservative philosophy, let alone their ability to manage the arrangements for the elections to make them credible.
By Martin Thomas