Delay the Elections — Or Open Up a Pandora's Box of Sunnis

Brookings Institute
Michael O'Hanlon
Although it is quite unlikely to happen at this late date, I still believe a postponement of Iraq's elections would be desirable — provided, that is, that leading Shiite and Kurdish figures could be convinced to support such a step, and that Sunni politicians promise to run in the postponed elections as a quid pro quo for such a delay.

Admittedly, President Bush was right to insist that elections in Iraq be held on schedule on January 30. To show weakness at this point early in the process would have angered Shias and Kurds, who want their country back after decades of oppression by Sunnis. It would also have convinced Sunni Arabs not to bother preparing for elections because they probably weren't going to happen on schedule anyway. It would have been to give up too soon, with no real benefit to doing so.

However, at this point a postponement would serve Iraq's interests and our own. The strategy of having elections on January 30 is probably not going to work well because Sunni Arab turnout seems likely to be very low. Many Sunni politicians have bowed out of the process, and public opinion polls show markedly less Sunni enthusiasm for the elections than is found among Iraq's other major ethnic and religious groups. Thus, many anticipate a very low turnout.

Given the voting system that Iraq is employing in January, that means very few Sunni Arab politicians will wind up being elected. The likely result is further anger among Sunnis, and greater sympathy and support for an insurgency that remains Sunni-dominated.

As a result, an increasing number of top Sunni political figures, including some very moderate and pro-American individuals such as former Interim President Pacachi, have concluded that there is no choice in the matter anymore. The elections must be postponed.

That said, any delay in Iraq's elections needs to be handled correctly, in order to retain Shia and Kurdish support and maintain the Iraqi people's confidence in general.


• The postponement should be announced by Iraqis. Americans should keep a low profile.
• They should emphasize that the postponement is a one-time event for a specific and finite period of time — about three months.
• Most Sunni political figures must promise to make use of the extra time to campaign seriously for office, and encourage their fellow Sunnis to vote.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, where he specializes in U.S. defense strategy and budgeting, homeland security and American foreign policy. He is a visiting lecturer at Princeton University, and a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Council on Foreign Relations. Prior to his work at Brookings, O'Hanlon was an analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He's a frequent guest on FNC's primetime shows as a foreign policy expert.