Benador Associates
Amir Taheri
With the start of the Iraqi electoral campaign, doomsters are back with predictions of disaster for the newly liberated nation.

Some claim the election could be a prelude to civil war; others warn that the nation's Shiite majority might, in a moment of madness, choose an Iranian-style theocracy; still others point to the Kurdish show of disaffection as a sign the multi-ethnic country may well be heading for disintegration, and that the elections could speed up the process.

Yet most doomsters are the same people who opposed first the liberation of Iraq and then the holding of free elections. What is the evidence for all their warnings and demands that Iraqi elections be postponed, presumably forever?

Some pretend to be alarmed by the "excessive language" used by rival Iraqi politicians in campaign speeches. For example, Hazem Shaalan, Iraq's flamboyant defense minister, has attacked Hussein Shahrestani, the leader of one of the Shiite lists of candidates, as "the man from Tehran." Shahrestani's aides have retaliated by branding Shaalan "the American minister."

By most campaign standards, this is a rather mild polemical exchange. The American papers that pretend to be shocked by Iraqi verbal duels must have forgotten the recent U.S. presidential campaign, which saw President Bush branded as "the Arabian candidate" and Sen. John Kerry portrayed as a coward masquerading as a hero.

What is happening in Iraq is what happens in every democracy: Political rivals attack each other verbally, but, in contrast to most other Arab states, do not imprison or murder their opponents.

Other doomsters predict a straight win for the Shiites and see such an outcome as a disaster for Iraq and for U.S. policy. But why should anyone be scared of Shiites winning a majority of the seats? After all, they make up 60 percent of the population — yet they do not constitute a monolithic bloc.

Shiites enter the election with three major competing lists of candidates. While all agree that Iraq must become a pluralist democracy, they represent different political sensibilities and are marked by the regional and tribal identities of their leading members.

One list, led by interim Prime Minister Ayad Al-Allawi, draws support from urban areas, especially Baghdad, and among civil servants, business people and senior tribal leaders. This group envisages a special relationship with the United States and Coalition allies. Domestically, it wants to give the state a central role in all aspects of the nation's life, including the economy.

A second list is led by the already mentioned Shahrestani and endorsed by Grand Ayatollah-Ali Muhammad Sistani, the most senior of Shiite clerics in Iraq.

A nuclear physicist, Shahrestani led Iraq's atomic program for several years under Saddam Hussein, but broke with Saddam when the dictator ordered the program extended from civilian projects to developing nuclear weapons. Imprisoned and tortured, Shahrestani was able to flee; he found refuge in Iran, but soon found life under the ayatollahs "suffocating" and became a refugee in Britain.

It is difficult to place this list on the spectrum; it holds former Communists and ex-monarchists, traditionalist conservatives and left-wing radicals. Its support base consists of small shopkeepers, rank-and-file tribesmen, the mass of the clergy and students of theology, and part of the rural population in southern Iraq.

The third major Shiite list is headed by Abdul-Aziz Hakim Tabatabai, a junior cleric whose late father (Grand Ayatollah Muhsin Hakim) was the most senior Shiite cleric in Iraq. Known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), this group has enjoyed Iranian support for the past 22 years. Yet it would be wrong to see SCIRI as an arm of Iranian policy in Iraq.

The SCIRI has closely cooperated with the U.S. and coalition allies since before liberation. It sees itself as one of the prime victims of Saddam's rule and regards America's presence and support as essential to prevent the return of Saddamites to power.

These three lists are not alone in seeking Shiite votes. At least 20 other parties and groups and dozens of independents are also in the race. Also, each of the mainly Shiite lists includes Sunni and Kurdish candidates, often in the coveted high places that increase one's chances of getting elected.

Plus, no single party or alliance will win an outright majority: The election will be held in accordance with the rule of proportional representation.

Treating the three main Shiite lists as one and assuming that, together, they win all the Shiite votes, the planned National Assembly of 275 seats would end up with no more than 122 Shiite members. This is because at least 30 of those likely to be elected on the Shiite lists are Arab Sunnis or Kurds. In other words, the three main Shiite lists would not have a majority without their Sunni and Kurdish members.

But even if the Shiites won a straight majority, it is hard to imagine Al-Allawi, Shahrestani and Hakim forming a single ethnic bloc and ignoring Sistani's well-established rejection of the Khomeinist system, all to sell Iraq to Iran.

There is another reason why fears of a Shiite takeover are misplaced. New Iraq will be a federation that grants a large measure of autonomy to the Kurds, some 20 percent of the population. Outside the Kurdish areas, provincial government assemblies, also to be elected on January 30, will have a good share of power, ensuring that the central government does not degenerate into an authoritarian system.

Another claim made by the doomsters is that the Arab Sunnis, some 15 percent of the population, may boycott. This has not happened. All the main Arab Sunni parties have entered the race. In fact, Arab Sunnis make up a disproportionate share of the 7,200 candidates.

This is a popular election, and an overwhelming majority of Iraqis want it to succeed.

The campaign is certain to be a hard-fought one, and the terrorist insurgent groups are also certain to continue doing all they can to prevent the Iraq people from going to the polls.

Next to the three weeks of fighting that led to the liberation of Iraq, the few weeks ahead will be the most decisive in shaping the future of the country, and the Middle East as a whole.

Amir Taheri is an Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. He is a columnist with Asharq Al-Awsat, Arab News, Jerusalem Post, Gulf News, New York Post, Focus Magazine, and has written frequently for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Australian, The Times of London, The Telegraph, among others. Mr. Taheri is also editor of Politique Internationale and a founding member of Benador Associates.