For US, new hurdles on way to Iraqi vote

A key factor in determining the legitimacy of elections is the participation of the minority Sunni population.

In the northern Iraqi city of Mosul recently, truckloads of voter registration cards were ambushed and torched by insurgents bent on derailing national elections set for Jan. 30.

Over the month between now and the voting, Iraq will be tested by many more such acts - and probably much worse. Experts predict an uptick in suicide bombings like the one that struck a US base in Mosul last week; or assassination attempts against prominent candidates, like the suicide bombing that killed 13 at the offices of Abdul Azziz Hakim, a leading Shiite politician, on Monday. He was not injured.

But other challenges will be at least as decisive in determining whether the elections - and the resulting government - are ultimately deemed legitimate and thus a success, experts say. Among those factors will be the level of participation from the key minority Sunni population, and support for the process from Iraq's neighbors.

Ensuring Sunni representation

"I'm going to be watching for measures to ameliorate the problem of Sunni under-representation," says James Dobbins, director of International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND Corp. in Arlington, Va.

"Without some adjustment to the electoral system the Sunnis are likely to end up with representation based not on the 20 to 25 percent of the population they actually represent but on the 5 to 10 percent that might end up voting, and that risks pushing Iraq towards even more conflict."

That is looking increasingly likely, with the Iraqi Islamic Party, the biggest Sunni political party, declaring Monday that it will boycott the vote because of continued violence and concerns about low turnout.

On Tuesday, at least 24 were killed across the Sunni heartland in the center of Iraq - 19 of them policemen - providing evidence of the deepening challenge. The attacks followed an Internet statement attributed to Osama bin Laden in which he declared that all voters in the election will be deemed "infidels" and fair game for attacks.

If Sunni areas fail to vote, US Secretary of State Colin Powell said the elected assembly should at least acknowledge the Sunni minority: "For the government to be representative and for the government to be effective, the transitional national assembly would certainly have to take into account the ethnic mix," Mr. Powell said.

One option for dealing with the looming prospect of limited Sunni representation, says Dobbins, would be for Iraqi leaders to amend election laws to allow for "reballoting" in areas of very low participation in the elections. That would put off determining final results for some period, but could pay off in terms of stability.

Addressing concerns now, not later

Others agree that the Sunni challenge must be addressed now - or left to cause deeper problems later. "It's really a key question, but I do think there are ways to address it now that actually leave the remedy to under-representation until after" the elections, says Henri Barkey, a former State Department Iraq specialist now at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

Along those lines, Mr. Barkey says Shiite and Kurdish leaders, representing Iraq's two other principal population groups could make a joint statement that in the event that turnout is such in Sunni areas that representation is "less than what it should be," adjustments will be made in the newly elected parliament and the new government "to ensure adequate Sunni representation."

That might sound like backroom bargaining rather than democracy, but Barkey says it could ease sectarian tensions while also "sending a signal to the insurgents that they are not going to win." It would also remind Iraqis that "these elections are not the be-all and end-all" to determine fixed power arrangements but rather just one stop in the process of building a new kind of government.

The Sunni question is part of the larger challenge of sectarian and ethnic polarization, which some experts fear the month-long campaign will only exacerbate.

It isn't clear that Shiite politicians, who suffered under Iraq's Sunni-dominated Baath regime for decades, will listen to calls for special allowances for Sunnis, who have been behind most of the violence. If the Shiites have control of the interim assembly after elections, there will be few immediate incentives for them to make concessions and calls from their constituents to look after group interests over national interests.

Group identity grows

Phebe Marr, an Iraq specialist at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, says the elections have "planted a seed" of interest in participation and organization-building, particularly among Iraq's youth. But after a recent trip to Iraq she finds also that "the system is tending towards a Lebanization," mirroring Lebanon's descent in the 1970s into sectarian conflict.

Young Kurds are much more passionate about their "Kurdishness," she says, while there's been an intensification of religious identity among youth from other groups, as noted by experts.

"We'll almost certainly see some further polarization in the Shia-Sunni schism," says Dobbins. "The Sunni will be underrepresented, and unwilling to accord the new regime any legitimacy."

Although not at all convinced that the rising polarization foretells deeper conflict, Ms. Marr does say that it may only be after the elections, in a "huge bargaining session" at the programmed constitutional assembly, that the tensions can be reduced.

In the meantime don't look for the month-long campaign and elections to quell the violence. More important to ending violence, says Marr, will be establishment of a "genuinely Iraqi security force," and progress on economic development.

So far, progress on Iraqis meeting their own security needs has been disappointing, as even President Bush recently acknowledged.

And only minor improvement is anticipated on that score by election day. By then, the US will have 150,000 troops on the ground, assisted by some 25,000 troops from other countries, while trained Iraqi security forces will number no more than 125,000. About 10,000 of those are expected to go on duty over the next month.

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