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Issue Date:  February 11, 2005

Ballots win over bullets on Iraq Election Day

But democracy's triumph not a foregone conclusion, war opponents say


On Jan. 30, amid more insurgent attacks than on any other day since the American invasion nearly two years ago, Iraqis defied the violence and threats and voted for a transitional national assembly.

The Washington Post reported an official U.S. count of 260 insurgent attacks on Election Day -- with 45 dead and around 100 wounded. There was blood, to be sure, but not rivers of it, as Iraq’s graffitied walls had promised. President George W. Bush declared Election Day in Iraq a “resounding success.”

Like everything in Iraq, the definition of “success” is a matter of perspective. And while critics are finding something like hope in the election’s turnout, mitigating factors abound.

For some of the war’s most committed opponents, the initial reaction to Election Day in Iraq was tentative -- bordering on defensive.

Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies -- a progressive Washington think tank -- is an unflagging opponent of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. When asked if Iraq’s Election Day successes presented tough questions for the war’s detractors, Bennis was indignant.

“What’s the success?” Bennis asked. “That Iraqis are eager to control their lives? Of course they are. But they were all along. That President Bush would take credit for that is fundamentally insulting to Iraqis.”

Still, she said, “we should recognize that Iraqis clearly wanted to vote.”

Kathy Kelly, who -- since 1996 -- has been to Iraq dozens of times with humanitarian and antiwar delegations, saw reason to be hopeful in the lines of eager Iraqis waiting to vote and defying the threat of bloody retaliation.

Still, Kelly was careful to avoid the triumphant tone of the White House -- or even many Iraqis.

“It may be overstating the case to call it a triumph for democracy,” she said, “but it did certainly seem to be an assertion that people would rather use the ballot than the bullet.”

But, Kelly added, “It’s going to take a lot more than that. Democracy is based on people having information and that’s going to require education and social services and communication potential and that’s not there in areas of Iraq where they still don’t have electricity 24 hours a day and where they have substandard schools and people are afraid to go out on the streets.”

Iraqis, Bennis said, were “voting their hopes” Jan. 30. “They were voting for an end to violence, more electricity, clean water, jobs and an end to occupation.”

Indeed, while Election Day was widely interpreted in the United States as a referendum on the insurgency -- and it certainly was that -- it was also an opportunity for Iraqis to vote against the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq.

Declaring early victory for the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance -- the candidate list favored in January’s election and blessed by the intensely influential Shiite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani -- Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a prominent figure in the alliance, told reporters: “No one welcomes the foreign troops in Iraq. We believe in the ability of Iraqis to run their own issues, including the security issue.”

Hakim is also leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- or SCIRI -- a Shiite political party.

“Most Shiites who voted thought they were voting for an end to U.S. hegemony in their country,” Professor Juan Cole, an expert on Iraqi Shiites, wrote in his blog, Informed Comment. “This is why it is so bizarre that the U.S. right is interpreting the elections as a victory for the Bush administration.”

U.S. withdrawal is one thing Sunni and Shiite, for all their differences, can unite around. According to a Zogby International poll taken just before the election, 82 percent of Sunni Arabs and 69 percent of Shiites favored U.S. forces withdrawing either immediately or after an elected government is in place.

Though the Bush administration has always held publicly that it would pack up and leave on a sovereign Iraqi government’s orders, it has been reported that work on “enduring” bases in Iraq is underway, perhaps as many as 14.

For the moment, a clean break seems unlikely, even impossible. U.S. influence over Iraqi affairs, Bennis is convinced, will continue long after a sovereign government takes power. And it will not be as simple as permanent military bases.

“There are the 40,000 plus civilian U.S. advisers -- some of them contractors some of them government workers -- who are in every ministry and all public institutions in Iraq,” Bennis said, “They’re not going anywhere. And in fact, if new ministers and new staff come in after the elections, these civilian U.S. advisers are going to be the only institutional memory of the place. They’re going to be more powerful than ever.”

Kelly, too, is expecting a heavy U.S. hand: “We’ve seen the U.S. government and big corporations and the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank fail poor countries very badly during these times of transition,” Kelly said. “We can’t look away at this point. What kind of military and police strength is being developed? How is the constitutional process developing? Are Iraq’s resources being privatized?

“Those aren’t always such interesting questions for the general public,” Kelly added, “but that’s what I think the working out of democracy would entail.”

And still there is the matter of the vote’s legitimacy, which seems certain to shadow Iraq’s transitional national assembly and the writing of Iraq’s constitution, which is the assembly’s critical mandate.

The post-vote and pre-results chatter is peppered with promises of “inclusion” by the projected winner. Good intentions are the soundtrack to any election, but the seeds of disharmony -- likely violent -- are already nestled in Iraq’s political soil. Major Sunni parties pulled out of the election altogether. The powerful Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni organization made up largely of hard-line clerics, denounced the elections before and after, insisting the assembly will not have the authority to write Iraq’s new constitution. In Mosul and surrounding northern towns and villages, Election Day was followed by demonstrations by voters, including Chaldean Christians, who weren’t able to vote because of missing ballot boxes and polling stations that never opened.

David Pottie is a senior program associate of the Carter Center’s Democracy Program. Since 1989, the center founded by former President Jimmy Carter has observed elections in more than 20 countries.

“In the United States,” Pottie said, “many political commentators and journalists, and certainly the administration, are rallying around this idea that success is evident in the simple fact of having held an election. And I can partly agree with that. A first step is great, but it certainly isn’t a forgone conclusion.

“You can have a fabulously well-conducted election, but if there are bombings or attacks or outright rejection of the results for political reasons,” he said invoking the lingering question of the Sunni Muslim minority’s role in Iraq’s future government, “then you have not much success at all.”

Like the rest of the world, Pottie was surprised that there was not more violence. But, he said, “I think it would be awfully premature and incorrect to write off the insurgency and the challenges that are ahead to build a more inclusive political system in Iraq.”

Bennis, for her part, has written off neither.

“How many signposts have we had before?” Bennis asked and answered: “We had the end of major conflict -- ‘mission accomplished’ -- and nothing changed. Then we had the capture of Saddam Hussein and nothing changed. We had the so-called handover of sovereignty and nothing changed. The violence continued, the violence escalated.

“I think,” Bennis added, “that’s going to happen this time as well.”

Though she echoes the pessimism of Bennis and many others, Kelly did find something hopeful in Election Day’s throngs who came out to vote in defiance of the threat of extreme violence, and who, in many cases, brought their children as witnesses.

“I hope that it’s going to bolster hopes in the possibility of nonviolent assertiveness,” Kelly said, “and give people pride in their collective courage. I think we really do catch courage from one another.”

Jeff Severns Guntzel is an NCR reporter and writer. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2005

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