Make vote the priority in Iraq

It is still possible - just - that Iraq can hold nationwide elections by Jan. 31, 2005, as planned. That deadline is very important. Significant Iraqi opinion leaders including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have said that any failure to meet it would signal extreme bad faith on the part of the US government. Ayatollah Sistani has indicated that such a failure would force him into outright opposition of the US presence in Iraq.

Why, then, are US commanders there still acting in an aggressive, escalatory way that actively impedes the plans to meet this crucial deadline?

The stakes are high. If the election gets derailed, Iraq faces a real prospect of long-term chaos, "Lebanonization," and huge additional suffering for all concerned. American losses, now more than 1,000 killed, would mount much, much higher. While some Americans (like Iraqis) may want to retaliate for recent deaths, the first priority of US commanders in Iraq must be to support the election process in every way possible. That calls for strategic restraint, which has not been evident yet.

Back in April, when election preparations had already started, US commanders launched unnecessarily escalatory attacks against Fallujah and Najaf. In August, they did the same in those two cities, and others. None of those escalations achieved anything of lasting military value. But at the political level inside Iraq, all resulted in considerable setbacks. Then on Sept. 5, the No. 2 US commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz, told an Associated Press reporter that a further US assault on one or more troublesome urban areas in Iraq is "likely" before the January elections.

General Metz claimed in the interview that these assaults - one of which may well be on Fallujah - are needed to bring "no-go" areas under US control before the vote. This is a dangerous argument. For elections to be held and to be judged valid in any part of Iraq, it is not necessary that US forces be in control of that area - only that it be peaceable enough to allow free access by election workers, candidates, and party organizers, all of whom are Iraqi, not American. If the election process has enough general political credibility in the country, they will have the access they need.

Meanwhile, the readiness of US commanders in Iraq to resort to massive violence whenever they feel challenged sends a powerful message to Iraqis that "it's OK to use force to try to solve problems" - the very opposite of what any lesson in democracy should teach.

But can we truly expect that the US military - which has been highly trained for aggressive battlefield operations - can transform itself into a bunch of patient, politically savvy election midwives? Yes, we can and must. It would not, after all, be the first military to make that transformation. In 1989, South Africa's apartheid government ordered its ultra-tough military, which for more than a decade had been battling black nationalist rebels in the annexed territory of Namibia, to turn to the radically new mission of creating the conditions for a UN-sponsored, one- person-one-vote election there.

Amazingly, despite some security flare-ups along the way, the whole process worked. The South African government perhaps thought that its Namibian allies would win - but Pretoria and the main nationalist group, SWAPO, had both agreed to abide by the result. SWAPO won an easily. Soon after, Pretoria withdrew its forces and the two countries have been on good terms ever since.

Can we expect such a scenario in Iraq? There is no big reason why not - and several aspects of the situation are the same. Crucially, while the South African military stayed in general control of Namibia throughout the election period, the UN played a central role in organizing the vote, as well as in offering assurance to all sides that polling would be "free and fair."

The UN is playing a similar role in supporting the planned elections in Iraq. Formally, the UN is "advising" the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). But UN envoys played a key role in forming the IEC, and in late June it was the UN that organized two weeks of extensive training (in Mexico) for the IEC's seven commissioners and chief electoral officer. The Iraqi commissioners brainstormed with counterparts from many other countries that recently moved successfully toward democracy. Now, the IEC is proceeding with plans to register voters and political parties, design ballot papers, train election workers, and prepare and run some 30,000 polling places in late January.

That is great work. It is work that every American and everyone else involved should be proud of supporting. But one major impediment stands in the way: The continuing high levels of violence throughout Iraq.

The US military is far from the only force stoking that violence. But its actions have certainly contributed to serious escalations in the past, and they threaten to in the future. In the name of all those who have already died in this war, that behavior must end. Give democracy a chance in Iraq.

Helena Cobban is working on a book about violence and its legacies.

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