I'm just appalled by the cheerleading tone of US news coverage of the so-called elections in Iraq on Sunday. I said on television last week that this event is a "political earthquake" and "a historical first step" for Iraq. It is an event of the utmost importance, for Iraq, the Middle East, and the world. All the boosterism has a kernel of truth to it, of course. Iraqis hadn't been able to choose their leaders at all in recent decades, even by some strange process where they chose unknown leaders. But this process is not a model for anything, and would not willingly be imitated by anyone else in the region. The 1997 elections in Iran were much more democratic, as were the 2002 elections in Bahrain and Pakistan.
Moreover, the Bush administration opposed one-person, one-vote elections of this sort. First they were going to turn Iraq over to Chalabi within six months. Then Bremer was going to be MacArthur in Baghdad for years. Then on November 15, 2003, Bremer announced a plan to have council-based elections in May of 2004. The US and the UK had somehow massaged into being provincial and municipal governing councils, the members of which were pro-American. Bremer was going to restrict the electorate to this small, elite group.
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani immediately gave a fatwa denouncing this plan and demanding free elections mandated by a UN Security Council resolution. Bush was reportedly "extremely offended" at these two demands and opposed Sistani. Bremer got his appointed Interim Governing Council to go along in fighting Sistani. Sistani then brought thousands of protesters into the streets in January of 2004, demanding free elections. Soon thereafter, Bush caved and gave the ayatollah everything he demanded. Except that he was apparently afraid that open, non-manipulated elections in Iraq might become a factor in the US presidential campaign, so he got the elections postponed to January 2005. This enormous delay allowed the country to fall into much worse chaos, and Sistani is still bitter that the Americans didn't hold the elections last May. The US objected that they couldn't use UN food ration cards for registration, as Sistani suggested. But in the end that is exactly what they did.
So if it had been up to Bush, Iraq would have been a soft dictatorship under Chalabi, or would have had stage-managed elections with an electorate consisting of a handful of pro-American notables. It was Sistani and the major Shiite parties that demanded free and open elections and a UNSC resolution. They did their job and got what they wanted. But the Americans have been unable to provide them the requisite security for truly aboveboard democratic elections.
With all the hoopla, it is easy to forget that this was an extremely troubling and flawed "election." Iraq is an armed camp. There were troops and security checkpoints everywhere. Vehicle traffic was banned. The measures were successful in cutting down on car bombings that could have done massive damage. But even these Draconian steps did not prevent widespread attacks, which is not actually good news. There is every reason to think that when the vehicle traffic starts up again, so will the guerrilla insurgency.
The Iraqis did not know the names of the candidates for whom they were supposedly voting. What kind of an election is anonymous! There were even some angry politicians late last week who found out they had been included on lists without their permission. Al-Zaman compared the election process to buying fruit wholesale and sight unseen. (This is the part of the process that I called a "joke," and I stand by that.)
This thing was more like a referendum than an election. It was a referendum on which major party list associated with which major leader would lead parliament.
Many of the voters came out to cast their ballots in the belief that it was the only way to regain enough sovereignty to get American troops back out of their country. The new parliament is unlikely to make such a demand immediately, because its members will be afraid of being killed by the Baath military. One fears a certain amount of resentment among the electorate when this reticence becomes clear.
Iraq now faces many key issues that could tear the country apart, from the issues of Kirkuk and Mosul to that of religious law. James Zogby on Wolf Blitzer wisely warned the US public against another "Mission Accomplished" moment. Things may gradually get better, but this flawed "election" isn't a Mardi Gras for Americans and they'll regret it if that is the way they treat it.
Juan Cole is Professor of History at the University of Michigan and has written extensively about modern Islamic movements in Egypt, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. This comment was posted on his weblog Informed Comment on 30 January 2005 and is reproduced with kind permission. The Evatt Foundation recommends Juan's weblog as a daily source of quality critical commentary on Iraq. His blog - Informed Comment - also has links to his essays, opinion pieces and books.