Election could trigger civil war

The Iraq election is at risk of inflaming, not taming, the Middle East.

By Simon Tisdall

Published January 21, 2005 4:01PM (EST)

Amid escalating insurgent attacks, a threatened Sunni boycott, and growing American misgivings, the prospect of Iraq's elections producing a strong, inclusive government looks increasingly remote.

Despite the violence and signs of cold feet in the interim administration led by Ayad Allawi, the polls will go ahead on January 30. The U.S. knows Iraq's Shia majority parties, which expect to emerge victorious, will brook no further delay.

But the elections are also likely to be deeply flawed in terms of security, participation and transparency. The U.N. has relatively few staff in place. Iraqi poll organizers are quitting due to intimidation.

Even if they want to vote, many among the Sunni Arab minority may not dare, said Rime Allaf, a Middle East expert at Chatham House. "The elections will not produce a credible government," she predicted.

For hardline secular nationalists and Islamist terrorists alike, the polls are irrelevant. Their overriding aim is ending foreign military occupation. Violence will continue at least until that objective is achieved.

Belated understanding of this point explains the accelerating U.S. debate about exit strategies and the Pentagon's "open-ended" review of a security situation that is almost beyond redemption.

"The insurgency is not going to go away as a result of this election," the outgoing U.S. secretary of state, Colin Powell, said this week. "In fact, perhaps the insurgents might become emboldened."

His assessment reflects national intelligence estimates that reportedly warn of escalating post-election fighting between Shias and Sunnis.

President George Bush insists that U.S. troops will not leave "until we have completed our mission". But any new government is expected to push for a timetable for phased withdrawal.

Washington has meanwhile started playing down elections previously portrayed as central to U.S. ambitions to democratise the Middle East.

"Clearly we don't see the election itself as a pivotal point," Mr Powell's deputy, Richard Armitage, said. "It's the beginning of a process, the process where Iraqis will write a constitution and  vote for a permanent government."

Brent Scowcroft, George Bush Senior's national security adviser, and the Democrats' John Kerry both believe the polls may precipitate greater chaos by widening existing fissures.

And Iraq's interior minister, Falah Hassan al-Naqib, warned on Tuesday that if the Sunni boycott materialized, "we will enter into a civil war that will divide the country".

The U.S. is now frantically looking for indirect ways to broaden the new administration's representative base.

"The Americans have slowly realized that the elections could trigger civil war if the Sunnis have no stake," Ms Allaf said. "They have also realised the Iranians have too much influence with the Shia. So they are trying to guarantee their own men, including Sunnis, have a significant say in writing the new constitution and are included in the government that will be appointed by the national assembly. They are trying to keep a toe-hold. There will be lots of backroom deals."

Although denounced this week as "an outpost of tyranny", Iran, like other neighbors, has a legitimate interest in Iraq's future. It fears civil war could destabilize the entire region.

But U.S. pressure on Iran to curb its interference could backfire if Tehran believes it can reduce the chances of an attack on its nuclear facilities by prolonging Iraq's agony.

Like Saudi Arabia, Syria is also accused of hedging its bets and failing to stop financial and logistical help reaching the insurgents.

Iraq's president, Ghazi al-Yawer, complained recently that "Saddam remnants in Syriaare undermining our political process".

Mr Armitage personally delivered a "stern warning" to Damascus this month.

While saying it supports elections, Syria's authoritarian Ba'athist regime, already at loggerheads with Washington over Palestine and Lebanon, may not welcome an effective, democratic government in Baghdad.

Turkey's worries include Iraq's Turkoman minority and Kurdish secessionists operating out of northeastern Iraq, whom the U.S. has refused to suppress.

If Iraq plunges deeper into post-election mayhem, Turkey, like Iran and Syria, may take matters into its own hands.

Simon Tisdall

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