Tod Lindberg

Misassumptions on Iraq

Posted by Tod Lindberg on February 1, 2005

The Washington Times

No, I’m not really expecting apologies from the people who told us we needed to postpone the elections in Iraq. But those counseling delay were clearly wrong.

There were two principal arguments for delay. The first was security, pure and simple: Conditions in Iraq were such that the election would be an invitation to massive bloodshed by the insurgent forces. It’s impossible to have a valid and meaningful election, and perhaps any election at all, under conditions of chaos.

Late Election Day reports indicate that some 50 Iraqis died in attacks on polling places, including perhaps a dozen suicide bombings as well as some mortar attacks. We don’t yet know what the turnout figures were.

Journalists’ accounts from the Kurdish and Shi’ite areas seemed to indicate extraordinarily high turnout, although clearly the Sunni areas saw less and in some cases, none at all.

Clearly, the question of security in Iraq varies tremendously by locale, and no doubt in some Sunni areas, casualties were low simply because people stayed home, either out of sympathy for the insurgents or fear. But, and this is the essential point, the ability of the insurgency to inflict mayhem is limited and the result is well short of national chaos of the sort that might make an election impossible. The insurgency thrives on the impression that it is a many-headed hydra capable of striking anywhere without notice.

And who knows? Maybe Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is just holding his forces in reserve. On the other hand, this was the best he could do on possibly the biggest day for democracy in the history of the Middle East? An unverified statement from the Zarqawi organization posted on the Internet Sunday night said, “We have spoiled their party. We have struck them with grievous attacks … Before this statement was published, 13 lions from the martyrs brigade of the Al-Qaeda Group of Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers attacked centers of the infidel in various regions of Iraq.” Yeah, right. At least he’s down another 13 martyrs.

The other reason commonly given for postponement of the election was the likely resulting underrepresentation of Sunnis in the political process. With more time, the argument went, moderate Sunnis would have come forward to participate, notwithstanding the insurgency. As things now stand, Sunnis face the prospect of exclusion and marginalization by the victors from the crucial tasks ahead, namely, writing an Iraqi constitution. Their participation will be crucial to the success of a unified Iraq, and without them, the risk is that the country then fractures into three, with vast regional instability immediately ensuing.

In my view, the problem with this argument is that it suffers from “final election” syndrome: the proposition that if you weren’t included Sunday, you are permanently excluded from political participation in Iraq. But why should that be the case? This was the first democratic election in Iraq, not the last. Sunnis will be just as eligible to vote in subsequent elections as they were in this one. If, at the moment, too many of them are too sympathetic to the Zarqawi lunatics and the Ba’athist goons to vote, or too frightened to oppose them, it is unlikely that a couple more months would have done anything to change that, especially not after the psychological boost the insurgents would have enjoyed having derailed the election schedule – and having averted the embarrassment of their party-pooper chest-thumping.

I suppose it is possible that the Kurds and Shi’ites will now impose victors’ justice. In doing so, they would be acting true to form of the caricature of them that has a hold on the minds of those who thought Iraq incapable of democratic governance. But from what I’ve seen, it looks like most of those participating in politics in Iraq understand perfectly well that the purpose of an election is not to decide who gets all the goodies once and for all.

Assumptions about Iraqis to the contrary seem to tell us more about the people making the assumptions than about Iraqis. Why would the Kurds and the Shi’ites want to turn every Sunni into an insurgent by making it clear that the only way Sunnis will get a political role is by fighting? There’s a lot more work to do, but what a great day Jan. 30 was.

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