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Iraq: A Sham Election


Frontline, Feb. 12, 2005

It is claimed that the elections in Iraq will usher in real democracy, but already there are signs that they will only legitimise the American occupation of the country.

There were no major surprises in the much-heralded Iraqi elections of January 30. As predicted, the Shia-dominated south and the Kurd-dominated northern areas of the country witnessed heavy polling, according to most accounts. The resistance forces also delivered what they promised.

January 30 turned out to be one of the most violent days for the Iraqi people since the American invasion of the country. The country witnessed widespread suicide bombings and mortar and rocket attacks. According to media reports, more than 260 separate attacks were carried out across the country. Forty-five people, including two American soldiers, were reported killed. A videotape released by a militant group conclusively showed the shooting down of a British military C-130 transport plane on polling day in central Iraq. It was the biggest military setback suffered by the British forces after they entered the country more than two years ago. Some Iraqi commentators compared the polling day to the first day of the American invasion when people chose to stay indoors because of fear psychosis. Around 40 per cent of the voters reside in the four provinces that boycotted the polls.

The skies over Baghdad were full of U.S. fighter planes and Apache helicopters seeking to deter the resistance forces. Mortars targeted the American embassy on the day before the polls. Four persons were killed in that attack. On the ground were 150,000 American soldiers deployed in support of the recently trained Iraqi security forces numbering around 100,000. In Baghdad itself, many people boycotted the polls. They included both Shias and Sunnis. Moqtada al Sadr's mainly Shia followers in the thickly populated Sadr City, a suburb of the capital, boycotted the elections, according to reports appearing in the Arab media. The turnout in the heavily populated Adhamiya, Yarmuk and Amiriya districts of the capital was reported to be poor.

There is no doubt that many Iraqis voted enthusiastically although the figures released by the Iraqi Election Commission immediately after polling were patently exaggerated. Even before polling closed, a senior Iraqi official said that more than 73 per cent of the electorate had voted. The figure has since been revised to 57 per cent. The exact number of Iraqis registered to vote, however, is still not clear.

With few neutral election observers and the voting taking place under the supervision of the American and Iraqi security forces, there was plenty of scope for electoral skulduggery. The influential Association of Muslim Scholars, which speaks on behalf of the Sunni clergy, has been very critical of the elections. Its spokesman, Muhammad al Kubaysi, said the low turnout was owing to the military occupation and the confusion surrounding the candidates.

'The voter goes to the polling stations not knowing who he is voting for in the first place. There are more than 7,700 candidates, and I challenge any Iraqi voter to name more than half a dozen,' the cleric told the Arab television channel Al Jazeera. He pointed out that 80 per cent of Iraqis residing abroad refused to register their names for voting. He said that it was yet another illustration of the growing Iraqi awareness that the elections were a ploy to legitimise the American occupation. 'We have consistently argued that elections can occur in a democracy that enjoys sovereignty. Our sovereignty is incomplete,' he said.

The Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani's call to the populace that voting was more important than even prayers and fasting was sufficient rationale for the majority of the Shias in southern Iraq to cast their ballots. The Shia community was also galvanised by the prospect of capturing power for the first time in modern Iraq. According to most observers, the pattern of voting has made it inevitable that the Shias who constitute around 60 per cent of the population will take over the reins of the government. The real power will, of course, remain with the U.S. Senior members of the interim government have said that the U.S. military presence in Iraq is essential for another three years.

'The U.S. is trying to legitimise its existence in Iraq by bringing in an elected parliament and a government which are fully loyal to it, and as such will be able to conclude long-term agreements that secure its interests and influence in Iraq,' Muhammad al Duri, who was the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations before the invasion of Iraq, told Al Jazeera.

Some prominent Shia politicians who contested the elections on the ticket of the Sistani-backed United Iraqi Alliance (U.I.A.) have dropped their demand for the speedy withdrawal of the occupation forces. Ibrahim Jaafari, the most popular Shia leader after Sistani and al Sadr, said recently that if there were a precipitate U.S. military pullout, there would be chaos in Iraq. The U.I.A. is expected to win the majority of the seats in the 275-member National Assembly. The supporters of Sadr, however, have a different view. Sadr's spokesman has said that the Iraqi people expect the new government to set a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops and to provide security and jobs speedily.

According to al Duri, it is wrong to say that only Sunni Arabs boycotted the elections. 'It is an attempt to ridicule a national Iraqi position that opposes the division of the country, by labelling it as a sectarian position,' he told Al Jazeera.

A recent opinion poll taken by a U.S. polling agency revealed that more than 63 per cent of the Shia populace wanted the Americans out of Iraq. The poll [also] showed that the Sunni populace remained opposed overwhelmingly to the American presence in their country. Only the Kurds in the north remain happy with the occupation. The Kurd leadership hopes that the U.S. will help them achieve their dream of establishing a homeland with Kirkuk as capital.

Arab governments are wary about the growth of Shia influence under American auspices in the region. They fear that this could lead to a chain reaction, sparking off unrest in countries such as Saudi Arabia, which have a sizeable Shia population. The Turkish government has reiterated that it would invade northern Iraq if ethnic Turks are threatened or if the Kurds try to take over Kirkuk.

In the January 30 elections, the Kurds also voted for their own local government - a step many say is a precursor to the formal break-up of Iraq. Kurdistan has been enjoying de facto autonomy under the U.S. military umbrella since 1991. The Kurds have their own government, army and police. With the Sunnis not voting, the Kurds now have an influential voice in the new Assembly. They are already demanding one of the three important posts in the government that will be formed once the Assembly is constituted.

The international community has responded cautiously to the electoral exercise. U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair have made effusive statements describing the vote as a defining moment for the Iraqi people and a triumph for democracy. Countries opposed to the American invasion of Iraq, such as France, Germany and Russia, welcomed the elections but have not made any significant policy changes on Iraq.

The Indian government had adopted a cautious approach. It was under pressure from Washington initially to send Election Commission officials to Iraq. When that request was refused, there was a suggestion that Iraqi election officials be trained in India. New Delhi ultimately contributed to a fund set up to finance the elections, at American urging. The Indian Foreign Office has described the holding of the elections in Iraq as a 'noteworthy development.' The statement expressed the hope that 'these events would set in motion a process that would lead the Iraqi people to taking full control of their destiny.' The Left parties have cautioned the government to adopt a watchful stance and wait for the American occupation of the country to end.

Analysts have pointed out that the elections held in South Vietnam when it was under American occupation were also described as successful. Within a few years of the presidential election, the Americans had to beat an ignominious retreat.

The American occupation authorities are not depending on 'democracy' alone in Iraq. They are said to be putting in place the 'Salvador option.' According to reports appearing in the American media, the Pentagon is planning to train Iraqi assassination squads to eliminate the leadership of the Iraqi resistance. The Americans had successfully trained similar assassination squads in Latin American countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The Americans had encouraged the assassination of hundreds of Ba'ath Party officials immediately after the overthrow of the Iraqi government two years ago.