Iraq Election News Roundup

As Sunday’s election nears, it’s rather clear that the terrorists are growing increasingly desperate:

Insurgents Vowing to Kill Iraqis Who Brave the Polls on Sunday (NYT, p. 1)

The black sedan made its way down Madaris Street, the young men inside tossing leaflets out the window. “This is a final warning to all of those who plan to participate in the election,” the leaflets said. “We vow to wash the streets of Baghdad with the voters’ blood.” Thus was the war over Sunday’s nationwide elections crystallized in a single incident on Tuesday in Mashtal, an ethnically mixed neighborhood on the eastern edge of Baghdad, where many Iraqis say they would like to vote, and where a small, determined group of people are doing everything they can to stop them.

The leaflets, like many turning up on sidewalks and doorsteps across the capital, were chilling in their detail: they warned Iraqis to stay at least 500 yards away from voting booths, for each would be the potential target of a rocket, mortar shell or car bomb. The leaflet suggested that Iraqis stay away from their windows, too, in case of blasts. “To those of you who think you can vote and then run away,” the leaflet warned, “we will shadow you and catch you, and we will cut off your heads and the heads of your children.”

***

On Madaris Street on Tuesday, the threatening anti-election leaflets had an uncertain effect. Residents said they did not support the guerrillas, but some said they were terrified at the violence that election day might bring. “I want to vote,” said Khalidayah Lazem, a 40-year-old Sunni, standing outside her home. “But as you can see, the situation is getting worse. We see these leaflets every day.” Most of the Iraqis interviewed expressed disapproval for the insurgents. They said the men in the black sedan, for instance, had come from outside the neighborhood. And while some, like Ms. Lazem, were clearly frightened, others said they planned to vote, whatever the price. “We are not afraid of these leaflets,” said Mohammed Adel, 24. “I must go to the polling center to vote. I want security and stability for my country.”

There would be no need for such heavyhanded tactics, nearly two years into the U.S.-led incursion, if there was widespread support for the insurgents. That they are willing to risk totally alienating their own population with these threats is telling.

Still, the violence and threats of violence are clearly having a major impact:

Sunnis Weigh The Risks Of Running (WaPo, A01)

Mishaan Jubouri does not dare set foot in his home district in Mosul to campaign for a seat in Iraq’s National Assembly. His posters are torn down — if anyone was emboldened to put them up in the first place. Stores do not sell the newspaper he runs, and some post large signs on their windows saying so. Even in Baghdad, where Jubouri lives now, his wife and family are afraid to leave their home, which is guarded by 54 armed security men. Still, Jubouri, a Sunni Muslim and Mosul’s first mayor after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government, defies those trying to stop the Iraqi elections. He has to run, he says, “to give the people some hope.”

In another northern city, Kirkuk, things are almost as bad. Ethnic strife looms over the coming vote, politicians have been kidnapped, mortar fire punctuates campaign debate, candidates are scared and their staff members are hunkered down in their homes. A Sunni leader there, Abdul Rahman Asi, took stock of the situation and chose to do the opposite of what Jubouri is doing. “Under normal circumstances, I would be a candidate. But the people are too afraid to come. There will be no voters. I will only lose,” Asi said. “It is dangerous, and my reputation will go down.”

The two men — both leaders of large Sunni Arab tribes — represent the dilemma for Iraq’s once-dominant branch of Islam. The Sunnis are the targets of an intimidation campaign by insurgents using violence to disrupt the elections. Under threat of death, they have been warned not to run, not to vote, not to participate. If they stay away from the polls, the attackers’ logic goes, the elections will be seen as invalid, the fragile sectarian balance in Iraq will be upset, and Iraq might sink into a civil war among Sunni Arabs, the majority Shiite Muslims and the Kurds, who are Sunnis but are ethnically distinct from Iraq’s more numerous Arabs.

The Sunni Arabs are aware of the stakes. Some question whether they could live under a Shiite-dominated government and the form of Islamic rule they fear it would bring. They are faced with what might be a life-and-death choice: sit out their chance to share power in Iraq’s new government or plunge into democracy despite the threats. For Sunni voters, the choice means whether to risk bombs and possible retaliation if they go to the polls Jan. 30. For their leaders, such as Jubouri and Asi, the choice is whether to risk meeting the same fate as the scores of candidates who have been killed for choosing to participate in the elections.

Layers Of Security To Protect Iraqi Vote (Washington Times, p. 1)

Authorities yesterday began detailing some of the extraordinary efforts being made to defend polling places for Sunday’s election in the face of an intense campaign of intimidation by anti-democracy insurgents and terrorists. U.S. and Iraqi troops, national guardsmen and police will be arrayed in concentric circles around the polling stations, curfews will be in place, and cars will be kept off the streets, officials said. But many of the preparations have been kept so secret that Iraqis still don’t know where they will go to vote, and no one has explained how the U.S. and Iraqi security forces will work together.

Abu Haider, a civic leader in the Baghdad neighborhood of Mansour, said most Iraqis are “hungry” for democracy, but that “most Iraqi people have fears of this election because of security.” Intimidation efforts have reached a fever pitch, with death threats being posted on homes and rumors of planned bomb attacks circulating around the capital. News that those who vote will have their forefingers marked with indelible ink also has frightened off some voters.

Mr. Haider said he was determined to cast his ballot, not only for the sake of his country, but also “to show the world we can do it.” Others, however, say the risks will keep them home on Sunday. “They think if they go for voting, they will be killed, and even if they do not go for voting, there will be bombings or explosions,” said a former candidate who dropped her name from the electoral lists. “Even my family, they are afraid to go. They hear rumors that [Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab] Zarqawi will start bombings everywhere from now,” she said. “Even the streets are not crowded like before.”

While a truism, stories like this can’t help:

U.S. General Says He Can’t Guarantee Voters Will Be Safe [link defective] (USA Today, p. 10)

The commander of U.S. forces in central and northern Iraq said Tuesday that he cannot guarantee the safety of Iraqis on election day, despite months of training Iraqi forces. “I wouldn’t begin to say that,†said Maj. Gen. John Batiste, commander of the 1st Infantry Division, when asked whether voters would be able to cast ballots safely Sunday. “But Iraqi forces are setting them (elections) up well for success.â€

Perhaps the strangest story is this one:

Iraqis Abroad Seem Reluctant To Vote, Too, Sign-Up Shows RSS (NYT)

After a two-day extension, registration of Iraqi voters living abroad drew to a close Tuesday but fell well below expectations, with about a quarter of the number predicted by organizers signing up for Sunday’s election. By Tuesday morning, some 255,000 Iraqis living overseas had registered in 14 nations. Organizers had expected that roughly one million voters would sign up. The low turnout added to the troubles of a process that was burdened throughout by security concerns, confusion and some controversy. “We’ve been successful in that we haven’t had procedural problems,” said Peter Erben, director of the overseas vote for the International Organization for Migration, which is running the elections overseas on behalf of Iraq’s Independent Electoral Commission. But, he added, the organization has little control over expatriate interest in the election. Registration in the United States stood at about 24,000 on Tuesday morning, or about 10 percent of the estimated 240,000 eligible Iraqis in the country. Final figures will be released Wednesday.

From the start, the registration of voters outside Iraq faced challenges, but I.O.M. officials said their biggest handicap was time. The decision to allow out-of-country voters, despite objections from the United Nations, was not made until November, when the migration office, a nongovernmental agency, was handed responsibility for the process. In addition, the organization did not secure agreements from all 14 countries involved until the start of January. By comparison, the organization was allowed almost three months to prepare out-of-country elections for Afghanistan last year, and those votes were carried out in only two countries, Iran and Pakistan.

That they are losing–in the sense that they are not achieving the political objectives for which they are purportedly fighting–does not mean they are about to be vanquished.

Iraqi Insurgency Proves Tough To Crack (LAT)

Four days before the landmark Iraqi national election, U.S. officials and their allies are bracing for fresh insurgent attacks with far less of the optimism that marked previous milestones. The capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 was greeted as a likely death blow for the guerrillas, then regarded as an incipient array of ill-organized holdovers from the ousted dictator’s Baath Party. When sovereignty was returned to Iraq six months later, the insurgents were seen as a more substantial threat, but it was widely anticipated that their strength would wither under an Iraqi government.

Today, after more than 18 months of often-fierce confrontations, tens of thousands of hard-core fighters are said to be operating in and around Baghdad and the Sunni Muslim heartland of central Iraq. The insurgents have plenty of firepower and mobility, employ strategic military thinking and operate openly in some areas, defying Iraqi government control. On Tuesday, insurgents assassinated an Iraqi judge, killed at least five members of Iraqi security forces and made public a videotape of an American hostage begging for his life at gunpoint. Recently the insurgents have carried out about 50 attacks daily, including a spate of killings and the bombing of a water main that disrupted the supply for hundreds of thousands of Baghdad residents. After a round of killings in Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar province in the Sunni heartland, word came Tuesday that the 1,000-member police force had abandoned its posts, the latest flop of the U.S.-sponsored security services.

Regardless of the turnout for Sunday’s election, U.S. officials are no longer predicting the swift vanquishing of the insurgents, who have stymied the world’s most potent military machine with bombings, assassinations, abductions and infrastructure attacks.

The unwillingness of Iraqi forces to stand their ground may well be the most significant obstacle to a smooth handover that we face. For whatever reason, despite being trained by the best military in the world, the Iraqi forces seem immune to professionalization. One presumes, too, that they are heavily infiltrated by insurgents and Islamist sympathizers. Brave words by LTG Dave Patreaus to the contrary, it is unclear that these troops will be capable of providing security any time soon. There appears to be no easy solution to this.

A report this morning also indicates that our staunchest ally is hoping for a quick turnover:

Blair Hints At Iraq Handover After Poll (Financial Times )

Tony Blair has signalled that the US and Britain will begin handing over control of large parts of Iraq to the country’s security forces after Sunday’s elections, seeking to underscore the legitimacy of the newly-elected government. As Iraqis prepare to vote in a poll dogged by the insurgency, Mr Blair ruled out setting a firm deadline for the US and UK to withdraw. But in a Financial Times interview the prime minister said the coalition was set to agree “timelines” with the new government that would indicate the pace at which Iraqi forces could take control of peaceful parts of the country. “Remember, 14 out of the 18 provinces in Iraq are relatively peaceful and stable.”

Mr Blair indicated that as this handover developed it would become clearer when the coalition could leave altogether. “Both ourselves and the Iraqis want us to leave as soon as possible. The question is what is ‘as soon as possible?’ And the answer to that is: when the Iraqi forces have the capability to do the job.”

Unfortunately, as previously noted, there’s the rub. Indeed, it appears that Iraqi leaders are reaching this conclusion as well:

Iraqis Drop Plan For U.S. Deadline (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Politicians from the two leading tickets in Sunday’s Iraqi election backed away yesterday from earlier campaign promises to set a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The decision underscores concerns that Iraqi troops are not ready to police their violence-wracked country and removes one possible point of friction between the new government and the Bush administration.

***

In Sunday’s election, the slates of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and the United Iraqi Alliance are now calling for a gradual transfer of responsibilities from U.S. troops to Iraqis. The shift away from a deadline coincides with a top U.S. Army officer’s saying about 120,000 Army troops are expected to remain in Iraq at least through 2006. “I will not set final dates because dates now would be both reckless and dangerous,” Allawi told reporters in Baghdad while discussing the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

The shift away from a withdrawal date is especially significant for the United Iraqi Alliance, favored by many to dominate the balloting. Until this week, its campaign materials listed its No. 2 promise as “setting a timetable for the withdrawal of multinational forces from Iraq.” The alliance revised its platform this week. The second item now reads: “The Iraq we want is capable of protecting its borders and security without depending on foreign forces.” The alliance, led by a prominent Shiite cleric and tacitly endorsed by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, Iraq’s highest-ranking Shiite cleric, is expected to garner millions of votes.

Iraqi transitional laws authorize U.S. forces to remain in Iraq until full democratic elections at the end of this year. Though a clause states that an earlier withdrawal could occur at the request of the Iraqi government, that scenario is improbable, given the widespread instability of the country.

As is usually the case with such things, time will tell. I’m hopeful that getting the elections behind us will signal the beginning of a new, better era. But I thought that would be true when Saddam’s regime was toppled, when Saddam was captured, and the Iraqi Interim Government took over nominal sovereignty.

The nature of terrorism and guerilla warfare is that a relative few men willing to kill innocents can wield power asymmetrical to their numbers. They can be defeated if enough private citizens refuse to shield them. So far, though, fear has outweighed a willingness to stand up to the thugs. Until a respectable Iraqi security force can be stood up, that’s likely to continue to be the case. If trained, organized paramilitaries won’t fight, ordinary citizens certainly won’t.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Iraq War
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. LJD says:

    The insurgents promise to kill any who vote, along with their children. They do not, however, conversely promise to keep those who do not vote safe. In fact the likelihood is very good that citizens living in areas dominated by insurgents may be killed by them in the future, for some other reason, whether they vote or not.

    The true color of the “insurgency” is showing through. The Iraqis are tired of their antics, as are most civilized people in the world. They’re losing ground and they know it.

  2. Alan Kellogg says:

    “…tens of thousands of hard-core fighters are said to be operating in and around Baghdad and the Sunni Muslim heartland of central Iraq”
    —LATimes

    If this is so, why then so few attacks?