Iraq’s Elections


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. 

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. 

election officials apparently decided that the election motto should
be “vote or starve.” The


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.” 



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.” 

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.” 

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

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.

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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

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. 

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. 

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. 

was a major issue in the run-up to the vote in Basra where the






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.

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.” 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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.


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. 

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.” 

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. 

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

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.

the real story may have been beforehand. U.S. military officers
told the


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


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


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. 

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.” 

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

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

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.” 

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.

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. 

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


. “By
reining in his radicals and going for elections, power is falling
into the Shia lap.” 

Civil War 


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

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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. 

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

is currently a staff member of the