Iraqi interim prime minister Iyad Allawi‘s announcement Wednesday, December 14, that he was standing for election at the head of his National Accord list, placed the round figure of 80 parties and blocs in the running for 275 general assembly seats. Once elected, the deputies’ tasks will be to appoint a government and write a constitution for post-Saddam Iraq.
As registration closed, a bomb explosion outside the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala killed 7 people and injured 30, but missed its target, Sheikh Abdul Mehdi Karbalai, who survived with minor injuries. The purportedly Sunni assailant, despairing of preventing the Shiites winning the election by sheer numbers, apparently decided to chip at the cement binding their political bloc, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The injured Karbalai is his senior aide.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Iraq note that the race begins with two critical features – one visible and one not yet divulged:
No one can promise that the election will actually take place on January 30.
All the candidates, including the interim prime minister, are running for office on spec. Despite the firm assertions issuing from President George W. Bush in Washington and Allawi in Baghdad, no one can foretell the level of terrorist violence on election-day or predict in which parts of Iraq the ballot will be immobilized, either by violence or by voters afraid to set out for the balloting stations.
Testimony to this uncertainty is provided by the hidden fact.
Preparations are afoot to stagger voting on two dates.
This plan is taking shape in secret consultations between an American panel headed by Ambassador John Negroponte – a much praised figure in the White House and Iraqi government circles – US military chiefs and Iraqi government leaders.
This device would allow the regions of the country prevented from holding the election by violence to vote at a later date. This means that not all the 275 assembly seats will be filled on January 30. The estimate is that no more than 70 will be left vacant for the run-off vote. Most of the non-elected will be Sunni Muslim representatives, because an unknown number of Sunni voters will not dare defy the official boycott and often their own families.
A staggered election will have a number of hitherto unforeseen consequences:
1. The provisional constitution will have to be amended to empower a partial assembly to appoint and swear in a permanent government to replace the interim administration – despite the absence of one-third of its members.
2. Since the date of the run-off cannot be established, new legislation will be needed to empower the incomplete assembly to enact laws and start drafting a new constitution to protect itself from litigation in international courts.
A “Sunnis runoff?”
3. Not only legal and constitutional issues are at stake here. A political anomaly threatens too. As long as a large number of Sunni seats remain vacant, Shiites will command a disproportionately high share of the vote – possibly as much as 70 or 80%. This could lead to the Sunnis as well as the Kurds opting out of the new democracy and an exodus from the legislature of the representatives who were elected in the first round.
4. The Americans are now striving to get as many deputies elected as possible in the first round and open an alternative door to the Sunni delegates left out – either through some electoral process or some other device which the elected assembly must enact.
US officials and Iraqi incumbents are doing everything in their power to assure Sunni leaders and tribal chiefs that they have nothing to fear from an election. Whatever the results, their place in the national assembly is guaranteed.
As part of this effort, the Bush administration has intensified the negotiations going forward through Allawi’s intermediaries with ex-Baath officials in Jordan and other places of exile.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources reveal that a serious crisis brought this negotiating track to a halt in late November and early December. Most of the Baathists quit and returned to their places of residence, many in Syria, after failing to obtain a clear answer from the Iraqi prime minister on exactly how the trials of Saddam Hussein and the 11 of his senior aides in US detention would be managed.
Their complaint went as follows: You are asking us to take part in elections and government in Baghdad. Yet you insist on imminent show trials for Saddam and his top people. Before we decide whether to join the new political process taking place in Baghdad, we have to know what will take place at those trials and what sort of sentences will be handed down. The fate of these prisoners cannot be separated from our political involvement with the Sunni electorate.
To rescue the talks from collapse, Jordan’s King Abdullah flew to Washington last week to persuade the administration not to give up – even if the talks with Sunni exiles produced results only after elections.
Trials will be adjourned
President Bush was won round. Two events this week were the outcome of Abdullah’s mission:
On Tuesday, December 15, Allawi suddenly announced the opening next week of the trial of Saddam Hussein´s infamous cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, who earned the sobriquet of Chemical Ali by gassing many thousands of Kurds and Shiites. He will be the first of the ousted leader's top 11 deputies to face post-Saddam Iraqi justice.
The announcement was intended as a dramatic message to the Iraqi electorate that the Allawi government was in control and not intimidated by Sunni-backed violence. Therefore they should all turn out in force and vote for a democratic regime. But behind the scenes, the Sunni and Baath leaders were assured that the trials would open before the elections, only to be indefinitely adjourned.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly reveals a second secret ploy to win the confidence and participation of the ex-Baathists and Sunni leaders. Unofficial Western emissaries accompanied by Allawi’s representatives paid a call in Amman on Saddam’s 35-year old daughter Raghad and informed her there was no objection to her returning home to Iraq or even standing for a national assembly seat in the January 30 election – or in the “Sunni run-off.” After all, said one of her Iraqi visitors, you did not take part in your father’s government or his deeds and we have nothing against you. Your election to the assembly will serve as a fine illustration of the democratic process in action.
Our sources report that, after this interview, Raghad summoned the lawyers she appointed to defend Saddam and fired them. She told them she suspects the Americans and Allawi of trying to maneuver her into the legislature so as to win legitimacy for her father’s trial. But without defending counsel, no court hearing could begin.
Nonetheless, Saddam’s lawyers requested and received permission to visit their client in his cell for the first time. The visit took place Thursday night, December 16, after which they gave out the information that his trial would not begin for at least two years.