The promise of Jan. 30 elections

By Mark Follman
Published November 23, 2004 7:56PM (EST)

Will the phoenix of democracy soon rise from the ashes in Iraq? The interim government in Baghdad and the Bush White House have both vowed that an election to select a new national government will be held just over two months from now.

The odds of pulling it off are daunting, to say the least.

As the Progress Report notes, holding a credible nationwide election will require "an enormous amount of logistical planning," from registering political parties and certifying candidates, to printing and distributing ballots to 28,000 polling places. But according to the New York Times, "in recent weeks, about 90 of more than 540 registration centers around the country have been closed because of potential violence."

Indeed, security concerns remain a critical hurdle. "Iraqi officials and American commanders plan to rely on Iraqi security forces to protect 9,000 polling places during the coming elections, but there are far fewer trained security officers than Iraqi officials estimate are needed," the Times reports. "Moreover, many have performed poorly in the Sunni Arab areas where the worst violence is expected. Iraqi and American officials believe it is important to deploy Iraqi forces, rather than have American troops police the polls, to ensure the credibility of the vote. But American commanders say that only 145,000 Iraqi security personnel will be trained and ready by election day, now scheduled for Jan. 30, far short of the 270,000 that Iraqi officials say are needed."

And the United Nations' presence in Iraq has been crippled: "In contrast to Afghanistan's October elections," reports USA Today, "for which the U.N. deployed 266 election workers, there are only 10 U.N. staffers now in Iraq, a number expected to increase to 25 in December." And while "U.N. officials say they don't need as many personnel in Iraq because Iraqis are more sophisticated than Afghans," surely the fearsome lack of security has plenty to do with their absence.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said that the lack of security is the biggest constraint on deploying U.N. staff, according to USA Today. "While fighting continues in Afghanistan, the level of violence there is much lower than it is in Iraq. The world body has had a minimal presence in Iraq since last year, following the death of 22 U.N. personnel in a suicide bombing."

In the LA Times over the weekend, Air Force Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, deputy commander of U.S. Central Command, said of the insurgency in Iraq: "The intimidation campaign that is ongoing is very effective." While Lt. Gen. John F. Sattler, a top Marine commander in Iraq stated late last week that the U.S. offensive in Fallujah had "broken the back" of the insurgency by taking away a key safe haven, Smith disagreed, saying the insurgency, "permeates many levels of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi security forces."

Meanwhile, the next major battle is already raging. From the Associated Press this afternoon:

"Some 5,000 U.S. Marines, British troops and Iraqi commandos launched raids and arrested suspected insurgents Tuesday in a new offensive aimed at clearing a swath of insurgent hotbeds south of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. The new offensive was the third large-scale military assault this month aimed at suppressing Iraq's persistent insurgency ahead of crucial elections set for Jan. 30."

And violence and unrest continue to swirl.

"Masked gunmen assassinated a Sunni cleric north of Baghdad -- the second such killing in as many days -- and insurgents hit a U.S. convoy with a roadside bomb near the central Iraq city of Samarra, prompting the Americans to open fire, killing an Iraqi, hospital officials said. The region of dusty, small towns south of the capital has become known as the 'triangle of death' for the frequent attacks by car bombs, rockets, and small arms on U.S. and Iraqi forces there and for frequent ambushes on travelers."

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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