Despite continued violence, Iraq's planned Jan. 30 election looks set to occur. It's unlikely to be either the decisive turning point the Bush Administration once hoped for or the unmitigated disaster critics predict. Instead, this vote at best will be a step on the difficult road toward creating a viable, self-governing country.
Voters will elect a 275-seat National Assembly, which will then face the daunting tasks of choosing a new government and writing a constitution. The country's transitional law sets an ambitious deadline of Aug. 15 for a draft constitution. The negotiations, in which Iraqis will have to grapple with dividing up power and oil wealth, will largely determine whether Iraq gradually pulls itself out of the mire or remains a mess for years. "The assembly is going to face existential issues," says Phebe Marr, an Iraq expert at Washington's U.S. Institute of Peace. "The big question is whether Iraq is going to produce practical, responsible people who are willing to compromise."
Dozens of parties are vying for seats to be awarded under a system of proportional representation. Most analysts think the biggest vote getter will be the largely Shia list put together at the behest of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most powerful religious leader. A slate sponsored by the two chief Kurdish parties is likely to be another winner. Based on a recent poll, U.S. military analysts think the Shiites could get 40% to 45% of the vote, while the Kurds could poll above 30%.
Many of the party lists are arranged on religious and ethnic lines -- a worrying sign. But one politician steering away from a sectarian approach is Ayad Allawi, the current Prime Minister. He has put together a nonreligious list in hopes of attracting Sunnis, nationalists, and others who don't want to be ruled by Shia religious leaders. If Allawi gets 60 to 70 seats "it will be very difficult not to have him" continue as Prime Minister, says Ali Allawi, a relative and former Defense Minister. Other candidates for Prime Minister include Ibrahim Jaafari, leader of the Da'wa Party, a Shia group affiliated with Sistani, and Hussein Shahristani, a nuclear scientist and the Ayatollah's most trusted political adviser. The Prime Minister will be chosen by a three-person council whom the National Assembly will select. Analysts think this indirect process leaves an opening for the U.S. to exert its influence.
After the government is chosen, Iraq's power brokers will have to find answers to tough questions. Among them is how much religious law will govern the new state. Although Sistani's intentions aren't clear, most analysts think he opposes the creation of an Iran-style Islamic republic. Another issue will be satisfying Kurdish demands for autonomy. The Kurds are running a quasi-state of their own in the north and have designs on oil fields around Kirkuk. The future role of the U.S. is also a problem. The Kurds want a permanent U.S. presence, while even moderate Sunnis insist that U.S. troops leave soon.
The stakes couldn't be higher. If the winners don't compromise, Iraq could split into ethnic and sectarian zones. The Kurds could break away. And many Sunni Muslims, the big losers from Saddam Hussein's fall, sympathize with or are participants in the raging insurgency. Unless statesmen emerge, the vote may be remembered as Iraq's first step on the road to oblivion.
By Stanley Reed in London, with Stan Crock in Washington
Edited by Rose Brady