The date for elections is the subject of fierce debate inside Iraq. Some local leaders demand a swift transfer of power from the Americans, followed without delay by a census and a poll – all within six months. Washington is tempted to agree hoping its critics in and outside Iraq will be silenced by the election of a legitimate government and parliament. On the other hand, there are imponderables to be weighed. Newly-elected leaders and lawmakers in Baghdad could turn round and demand that all American and coalition troops remove themselves from the country, thus putting paid to the prospects of rebuilding Iraq as a stable democracy.
Some prominent Iraqis are totally against a hasty election because they know the Iraqi voter will throw them out. Among them is the former exile Ahmed Chalabi, a Pentagon favorite on the US-appointed governing council who has no real power base in Iraq.
Pressure on Bush to accept an early election in Iraq is coming from British prime minister Tony Blair, according DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources. He proposes that the new government and parliament be entrusted with compiling a constitution. During Bush’s visit to London last month, Blair held up Imperial Britain’s strategy in Iraq in the 1920s as an example of how an occupying army can acquire legitimacy from an election.
A quick vote, he said, would transform the status of the US military in Iraq from occupier to an army invited by legitimately elected Iraqi rulers. This stratagem would cut the ideological ground from under the guerrilla groups besetting US forces.
From the first, the Pentagon and Bremer were wary of the British proposal, fearing an unprepared election would open the door for radical Muslim elements to gain power in Iraq. They are even less enthusiastic about ideas coming from Blair since Saddam Hussein was captured and he came out publicly against the death sentence for the former dictator, taking issue with the view held by President Bush.
In any case, the Shiite question must be carefully addressed before an election is held. Some Shiite figures urge a quick vote, anxious to exploit their majority in the electorate. But some of their leaders prefer to make sure first of a constitution based on Islamic law. They are also divided over whether the country should be classed as an Iraqi national republic or an Arab republic.
Another connected problem is Iraq’s future federal structure. Washington and Bremer are bound by their pre-war pledges to neighboring states, especially Iran and Turkey, to preserve Iraq’s territorial integrity. This has led to Bremer’s proposal of a federal electoral system based on 18 districts, each of which would be represented in the national government according to their respective populations.
The Kurds have said no, favoring representation based on geography rather than population. In their view, Kurdistan should contain one or two purely Kurdish districts. As for the rest of Iraq, the Kurds couldn’t care less. They do not see how Kurdistan can be a part of a federal Arab republic. Since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, the schools of autonomous Kurdistan – a safe haven under the protection of the United States, Britain and Australia – have taught in the Kurdish language, not in Arabic. Local television and radio broadcast in Kurdish.
The Kurdish position on federalism has made it that much harder for Talabani to attain national leadership status. Adopting Bremer’s proposal or the British plan would cost him Kurdish support – something he dare not risk. The Kurds will never participate in a federal Iraq without guarantees for keeping their present political and cultural autonomy intact without curtailment – even if urged to do so by Talabani himself.
Opting for the radical Shiite notion of an Arab republic would lose Talabani the Sunni and moderate Shiite backing he has so carefully cultivated over the past seven months.
Although they are not saying so out loud, Bremer and other US officials hope Talabani will use his political and diplomatic skills to find the middle ground and unite Iraq’s disparate elements around a common vision of a state. His failure to do so would be a serious setback to Washington’s plans, forcing Bush to think again – and fast – about how Iraq should be best governed.