Delay Iraqi Elections?

Col. Bill Cowan
Iraq’s scheduled elections may have as much to do with electing a new government, as with starting a civil war. Whether they are held on January 30, as Prime Minister Allawi and the U.S. want, or they are delayed for any number of potential reasons, one thing the world can be sure of — the Shiites will have a majority in the new assembly and the Sunnis and Kurds will split the rest. Comprising 60% of Iraq’s population, and encouraged to participate by their leading Iraqi cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, it’s improbable that the Shiites won’t get out the vote and be in the driver’s seat by the time the ballots have all been counted. What remains in question is whether there should be any delay in voting, and if so why.

In the short term, those opposed to delays argue that it proves the insurgents have won, when in fact they’ve not. The Fallujah operation puts their leadership and many of their core followers on the run. To be sure, they’re still at work wreaking havoc around the Sunni Triangle and areas to the immediate south of Baghdad. However, for the most part they are not doing it from safe havens and in familiar neighborhoods. They are fractured right now, and that alone puts them at greater risk of exposure and compromise, upping the chances of them being killed or captured by the Coalition or Iraqi forces on the hunt.

The Shiites themselves are opposed to delays, but for perhaps a different reason. They simply don’t want to wait another six months to gain their rightful place in legislative and governance roles from which they’ve been denied for so long. They know that with or without delays, they will still win a majority. But for them the time is now, not later.

Against those two basic arguments for no delay, others are calling for up to six months, primarily to allow the security situation to settle and ensure better participation on the part of the Sunnis. The fact is that there are large numbers of responsible Sunnis who are eager to give democracy a chance. It’s their radical brethren, supported by foreign fighters and seemingly unlimited amounts of money, who see otherwise.

Clearly, one positive aspect of any delay would be to give Sunni moderates a chance to influence as many of the radicals as possible, to try ballots instead of guns. Against a backdrop of continued losses on the battlefield, many of them might consider voting a better alternative to what they’re doing. Of course, some number of insurgents will never change course no matter what. Others, however, may be more amenable to participating in the vote, and therein lies any chance for an election which will result in an Iraq with a hopeful future. The Sunnis must not only be able to participate — they have to do so in large numbers. Failing that, and casting the election into questions of legitimacy, will hand the insurgents a basis for broadening their influence and roiling the conflict to greater levels.

So, what does all this have to do with civil war? Quite a bit, it turns out. Insurgents are already randomly attacking their own in the Sunni Triangle. It’s not just police, the national guard, or government workers, but often Sunni civilians who are the victims of car bombings and other terrorist attacks. In contrast, the Shiite regions remain relatively calm. One approach to upsetting the January elections will be for the insurgents to move out of the Sunni Triangle and strike at Shiite polling places, candidates, and voters. There will be no doubt in the Shiites’ minds as to where the attacks came from, and where their response should be directed.

Another approach will be to maximize death and destruction within the Sunni regions themselves, ensuring to the maximum extent that as few voters as possible participate. Again, attacking candidates, party headquarters, polling places, election officials, and voters themselves will have a chilling effect. If at the end of the day, Sunni voter participation is dismally small, the insurgents can then indeed claim some victory. And the result will be a new government which doesn’t properly represent the Iraqi people, and whose legitimacy can be disputed. In that scenario, it’s unlikely that even moderate Sunnis would be able to argue amongst their own that it was a government worth supporting. Our challenges for bringing about a stable and prosperous democracy in Iraq will suddenly become even more daunting.

To be sure, there are no easy answers here. It’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” type scenario. We Americans are certainly anxious to finish the Iraq experience and get our troops home. But in doing so we need to more carefully weigh the options going into the upcoming elections than we did going into the war itself. Rejecting outright any talks of delay plays into the hands of those who want us to fail. For our own long-term security, we can’t afford to leave Iraq a more dangerous place than it was when we first went in — a fractured state, with areas dominated by radicals and insurgents, would be just that.

Col. Bill Cowan is a military analyst for FOX News Channel. A retired Marine Corps officer, Cowan spent three-and-a-half years on combat assignments in Vietnam.