High hopes, high risks

From the perspective of President Bush and his top aides, this week’s parliamentary elections for a permanent Iraqi government mark another milestone in the country’s inexorable march toward becoming a beacon of democracy and self-rule in the Middle East.

For many analysts, including some who support Bush’s leadership of the war, the elections Thursday are significant but fraught with uncertainty over Iraq’s direction and ultimate destination.

“The good news is that there are people who are willing to vote and participate in the process,” said Yonah Alexander, director of terrorism studies at the Potomac Institute outside Washington. “The bad news is that democracy cannot flourish when you have instability and the absence of security.”

When millions of Iraqis go to the polls, they will choose a National Assembly to serve for four years, replacing the temporary legislature elected in January. The new parliament, during what promises to be months of tough negotiations among representatives of Shiites, Kurds, Sunnis and various smaller sects, then will set up a government.

It also almost certainly will amend the constitution adopted in an October referendum.

The most hopeful sign for Bush is active campaigning by Sunni Muslims, who boycotted the January elections. Sunni Arabs make up about one-fifth of Iraq’s 26 million people, but they held power for decades under dictator Saddam Hussein, who is a Sunni, and radical members of the religious sect are fueling the violent insurgency. Shiite Muslims, who make up about 60 percent of Iraq’s population, and Kurds, who constitute about a fifth, hope to cement the political gains they have achieved since the March 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam. Some prominent Sunnis, who came to rue their January boycott, believe they ceded too much power to the Shiites and Kurds.

“By helping Iraqis continue to build their democracy, we will gain an ally in the war on terror,” Bush said in a speech Wednesday. “By helping them build a democracy, we will inspire reformers from Damascus to Tehran. And by helping them build a democracy, we’ll make the American people more secure.”

In January, 8 million people voted in Iraq’s first free elections in half a century. Two months ago, 10 million Iraqis cast ballots in the constitutional referendum. Thanks to the increased Sunni campaigning, Bush and his aides are optimistic that the number will be still higher this time. Early voting has begun in hospitals, military camps and even prisons.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said about 7,000 candidates representing more than 300 political parties are seeking to join the 275-seat National Assembly. Voters will cast ballots at 6,000 polling stations protected by Iraqi security forces and U.S. troops.

“What’s important is that the democratic process is continuing to move forward,” McClellan told reporters late last week. “The Iraqi people have shown time and time again that they are going to defy the terrorists and those Saddam loyalists who want to return to the past. … The Iraqi people want to live in freedom.”

The ultimate goal, McClellan said, is “an inclusive, representative government that protects the rights of all.”

Reaching that goal is proving plenty hard. Just as violent spikes preceded the elections held earlier this year, increased insurgent attacks have marred the current campaign.

Election workers and even some candidates have been assaulted, kidnapped or killed. During the last three weeks, more than 300 Iraqis, most of them civilians, died in suicide bombings, other explosions or gunfire.

Voicing “serious concern” over the recent violence, U.N. envoy Ashraf Qazi appealed to Iraq’s political and religious leaders to urge restraint from their followers. The European Union, citing security fears, declined to send election monitors.

Amatzia Baram, a Middle East historian at the University of Haifa in Israel, said the security situation in Iraq is complex and uneven. Bush is right to point to increased stability in former insurgent strongholds such as Najaf, Mosul and Fallujah, Baram said, but large parts of Baghdad remain dangerous.

Violence disrupts towns along the Euphrates River south of the capital, he said, along with sections of the “Sunni Triangle” in central Iraq.

While politically inspired insurgent attacks grab the headlines, militias of street thugs and gangs of common criminals are to blame for much of the mayhem, Baram said.

“There are some positive developments, but if you compare them to the degree of violence and crime that prevent real economic progress, it’s very worrisome,” he said.