Early elections in Iraq: Could they give US an exit strategy?

'Rolling elections' are one proposed way to prevent insurgents from disrupting new democratic grass roots.

The spectacle of Saddam Hussein answering to an Iraqi judge provides the Iraqi people with an emotional rallying point about their recent past. But when it comes to the future, nothing unifies them as much as the desire to participate in reformation through elections.

Yet with ongoing violence raising questions about the prospects for nationwide elections, some experts are sketching something new on the Iraq drawing board. Their idea: "rolling" elections that would get under way this fall, coming first to largely stable sections of the country.

"Polls show the only thing a wide variety of Iraqis identify with is the need for elections, so it becomes especially important for an interim government that is 'selected not elected' to demonstrate they favor moving toward that as quickly as possible," says Dennis Ross director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Rather than allowing insecurity to hold off elections, he says, starting them sooner rather than later would be "one way to change the psychological climate and balance of forces in Iraq." And he says current conditions would allow for elections in at least 13 of Iraq's 18 provinces.

So far, Iraq's new appointed leaders are focused on establishing authority, with much of their initial emphasis on improving security - ranging from quickly building a large new Iraqi army to implementing tough new security powers.

With so much emphasis on first controlling violence, some Iraq specialists worry that elections are getting short shrift. Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has sent mixed signals recently saying that elections might take place as soon as November, but then indicating they might have to be postponed beyond the outside date of the United Nations stipulated date of January 2005.

Starting elections earlier in secure regions would be a way to convince Iraqis that their fledgling democracy is not a sham, experts say, and that power truly is being put in their hands. At the same time, they add, elections would demonstrate the leadership's understanding that the key to Iraq's progress is political.

Perhaps most important, some specialists say, rolling the electoral process would convince the insurgents they will not be allowed to derail national elections.

"The problem with saying there will be national elections [held on the same day] is that you are essentially telling that part of the country opposed to them that they can stop them," says Andrew Apostolou, an Iraq specialist at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington.

Saying the Iraqi insurgency knows it risks losing what power it has if elections are held, he says the recent violence hitting Iraqi targets is likely to continue to try to make a national vote impossible.

"If we insist on national elections," Mr. Apostolou says, "we are potentially giving a veto to the terrorists."

The Washington Institute's Mr. Ross, who helped guide the Middle East peace process through the first Bush and Clinton administrations, says proceeding with a "rolling set of elections" would give the Iraqis the participation in their own affairs they say they want, while helping to recast the US image as promoter of democracy.

Any moves toward early elections would either have to come from the Allawi government, or from the national conference scheduled for later this month.

But even the idea's supporters agree it comes with certain risks. Most important, some experts say, is the way staggered elections could foment divisiveness. "Voting first in peaceful regions will signify that the country is not united," says Faleh Jabar, an Iraqi analyst at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington (USIP). "With conditions as delicate as they are, that could be disastrous."

The northern Kurdish region could hold elections at almost any time, for example, but proceeding there first could feed autonomy aspirations and boost suspicions about the Kurds' intentions.

Mr. Jabar believes elections will probably have to be postponed beyond the January deadline, but he says that matters less than reducing unemployment.

Others who want to see elections take place sooner as a way to engage Iraqis in the political process, but question splitting up national elections, say an alternative might be to hold elections for local leaders.

"As soon as you announced that elections for national representatives were going to take place in Basra because conditions allowed it, what do you think would happen in Basra?" says Daniel Serwer, a specialist in peace and stabilization efforts at USIP with experience in the Balkans and Iraq. "It's an invitation to violent action where there hasn't been much."

But municipal elections could be started in many areas, he says, as a way to "build democracy from the ground up" and to reassure Iraqis that security concerns have not trumped new civil rights.

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