by Lisa Hoffman
Scripps Howard News Service
January 25, 2005
Deadly explosions have rocked political party offices. Eight staffers of Baghdad's elections commission died in a suicide-bomb attack. And leaflets in several cities are warning Iraqis they will face death if they dare to vote.
It's a battle between bullets and ballots in Iraq as the nation's first free elections in half a century approach. With U.S. commanders warning of "spectacular" violence before Sunday's election, it's more a hunting season than a campaign season in insurgent-infected sections of the country.
On Sunday, terror kingpin Abu Mussad al Zarqawi, America's most-wanted man in Iraq, pledged "a fierce war on this evil principle of democracy and those who follow this wrong ideology."
This perilous atmosphere "shows that the terrorists and Saddam's loyalists recognize how high the stakes are in Iraq. They're doing everything they can to try to derail the transition to democracy," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said recently.
Despite calls for delay from European leaders, United Nations officials, Iraqi groups and U.S. lawmakers, who have called the climate too violent to proceed, the vote is on.
"The die is absolutely cast. Elections are going forward," U.S. ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte told reporters last week.
Here's a look at the election and what is likely to happen.
Q: What will the election decide?
A: Iraqis will vote for a 275-person national assembly, akin to the U.S. Congress. They also will elect representatives to 18 provincial assemblies, sort of like American state legislatures. The national body will be a "transitional" one that will serve until final elections are held a year from now.
During its term, this temporary national assembly will elect from its members the president of Iraq and two deputies, as well as a prime minister, who will hold the most power.
The temporary assembly also will craft a constitution by Aug. 15, which Iraqis must vote up or down by Oct. 15. If the citizens accept it, elections for a permanent government will be held by Dec. 15. If voters reject it, the assembly will dissolve and a new one will be elected to try again with another constitution and set of leaders.
Q: Will Iraqis turn out to vote?
A: Those who are Shiia Muslims certainly will. Though they make up about 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, they have been shut out of power and often brutally oppressed for 80 years by Sunni Muslims, who constitute just 20 percent of Iraq's people. Most Shiia clerics and other leaders are exhorting their followers to vote and, given that the southern reaches of the country where Shiias predominate have been more peaceful, turnout is expected to be large.
Also expected to vote heavily are ethnic Kurds, who are concentrated in the similarly stable northern reaches of the country. They suffered equally under Sunni rule, especially during Saddam Hussein's regime.
The question mark is in Baghdad, Fallujah and other nearby Sunni strongholds where former Saddam supporters and Islamic extremists have mounted a bloody insurgency that is expected to stage hundreds of attacks this week and on election day. If Sunnis stay home, analysts say, the election and subsequent government it creates will carry little legitimacy, and may even spark a civil war.
Still, a recent survey of potential voters in Baghdad, conducted by al Mada, one of the city's most respected newspapers, found that nearly 70 percent said they intended to vote despite the danger. Less than 25 percent said the election should be postponed.
And an official of Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission said he expected about half of Iraq's 14 million eligible voters to go to the polls. The turnout is predicted to be even higher outside Iraq in the 14 countries, including the United States, where 1.2 million voting-age expatriate Iraqis will be allowed to cast absentee ballots.
Q: Who are the candidates?
A: No one is entirely sure. The names of many of the 7,500 candidates for the 275-seat national assembly will not be made public until election day to protect them from being targeted.
Iraqis will mostly be choosing among slates, or lists, of candidates for the national assembly who are running under the umbrellas of about 84 political parties or coalitions. Another 75 Iraqis are running as unaffiliated individuals. Women are guaranteed to make up at least 25 percent of the assembly.
Seats in the legislature will be awarded proportionally, with, say, a party that wins 20 percent of the ballots being entitled to 20 percent of the assembly's seats.
Not allowed on the ballot is anyone under 30, parties that control armed militias, former senior members of Saddam's Baath Party, or current Iraqi soldiers.
Q: Who is expected to win?
A: Put your money on the United Iraqi Alliance, a coalition dominated by Shiia groups with an assortment of Kurds, Sunnis and other minority groups. Despite the vigorous support of the most influential fundamentalist Shiia cleric - Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani - the leaders of the alliance have vowed to create a secular government rather than a religious one.
If this coalition dominates the race, odds are good Iraq's current interim prime minister, Sunni Muslim Ayad Allawi, will not get the job permanently. Instead, the next prime minister is more likely to be Adil Abdel Mahdi, a Shiia who now is the country's temporary finance minister.
Q: What's being done to make the election safe and fraud-free?
A: Iraq will essentially be in lockdown on election day and several days before. The borders will be closed, as will the Baghdad airport, and a nighttime curfew will be in effect throughout the weekend.
Only military vehicles will be allowed on the streets on Sunday so voters will have to walk to the polling places. The location of all 5,200 polling places won't be announced until Sunday morning. Those polls will be fortified with concrete barriers and voters will be frisked for weapons and explosives.
In advance of the vote, U.S. forces bulked up to about 150,000 troops and have conducted pre-emptive raids in recent days on suspected insurgent safe houses and bomb-making sites. On election day, Iraqi forces will protect the voting locations, with American troops staying far away and mostly out of sight to limit any perceptions of U.S. control of the polls.
"This is an election for Iraqis, by Iraqis," Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste told reporters last week. "We'll operate from a distance and provide quick support as necessary."
To forestall counterfeiting or other fraud, the ballots were printed in Canada and Switzerland and will be under tight guard until the polls open. Each voter will have a finger sprayed with indelible ink to prevent casting more than one ballot.
Unlike in last summer's election in Afghanistan, no international monitors will be present to observe the election and report instances of fraud. The United Nations and European Union declined to dispatch observers because conditions are too dangerous, the groups said.
Even so, as many as 100,000 Iraqis, who have been trained as poll workers and monitors, are expected to be stationed at voting sites to diminish the opportunity for fraud.
Q: What happens after election day?
A: The final results are scheduled to be announced by Feb. 15, with the assembly winners taking their seats by March 1.
If the Shiia-dominated coalition wins, U.S. officials and other leaders are likely to press them to reach out to Sunnis and find a way to share power with them.
Whoever wins, analysts predict the new assembly, and the country at large, will unite over at least one issue - the exit of U.S. troops from Iraq. What likely will be contentious is the timing of such a withdrawal, with the Pentagon and some Iraqi leaders warning against a too-hasty retreat before Iraqis are ready to assume the security role U.S. troops play now.
"I think we all are worried about what's going to happen after the elections," outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently.