BAGHDAD – Iraqi leaders and officials are getting jittery over the now-partial elections proposed for January next year.
The government of U.S.-appointed prime minister Iyad Allawi has said, with U.S. and British backing, that elections will be held as planned even if people in areas under rebel control do not vote.
That is a growing number. Chairman of the U.S. Central Command Gen. John Abizaid said earlier this month that there are now more areas under the control of unknown armed groups than there were last year.
These areas now spread from the north near Mosul to cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi, Sadr City in Baghdad and down to places in the south.
The reaction to proposals that elections may not be held in all of Iraq has been mixed. Some Iraqi and international human rights groups say they are not happy with the decision, but can understand it as long as the government does not claim the elections are fair.
“If you are going to have elections, our concern is that those elections be held in a manner that is free and fair,” Joe Stork, acting director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch told IPS.
“Questions about the overall fairness will legitimately be raised if they were going to go ahead in circumstances where you had whole towns, whole cities, whole communities who effectively could not participate,” he said.
Stork says one possibility might be to postpone and not cancel elections in areas such as Ramadi and Fallujah.
Hussain Sinjari from the Iraq Institute for Democracy in Baghdad says the government is doing its best.
“We are not living in an ideal place where the circumstances are 100 percent suitable for holding elections,” he told IPS. “I think we should hold the elections according to the realities on the ground. If there is a governorate, or a town like Fallujah where there is violence, we can exclude the place from elections.”
The controversy extends beyond exclusion of some areas.
Abdel Aziz Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an influential Shia group, says the entire mechanism is flawed because what is called the Independent Elections Commission has too much power vested in it by an illegal authority.
“Do you find something resembling this anywhere in the world,” Hakim said at a recent gathering in Baghdad. “Being appointed by the occupation power, and give them these powers, and we are starting elections and democracy?”
Administrator of the former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) L. Paul Bremer signed an order before the CPA was dissolved in June, to establish a commission to write election laws and prepare the ground for holding elections.
Commission officials say politicians like Hakim are either misinformed or they are being deceitful.
Bremer issued the law but “this commission is the first [electoral] experience in the history of Iraq,” says commission spokesman Farid Ayar. “This commission is an Iraqi commission, independent, and it works to bring a very new and democratic election in Iraq.”
The appointment of the commissioners came through the United Nations, he added.
UN officials in Baghdad confirm that the CPA had little to do with choosing the commissioners. They say UN elections advisors selected a panel of international judges to sift through more than a thousand applications to serve on the commission. The judges eventually interviewed less than 20. Eight were selected.
The commission has hired about 500 employees but is likely to need thousands more.
Those employees need to be trained, but UN officials say little time is left for that. Some can be trained outside Iraq but that cannot be done for everyone, they say.
Hakim is concerned that one of the responsibilities of the election commission is to write laws on the qualifications of the candidates.
“These few selected people have jurisdiction over issues that affect not just this election but the future of Iraq,” Hakim told the gathering.
Commission officials acknowledge such concerns and say the Iraqi government can negotiate those powers with the United Nations if enough politicians raise the issue.
The commission is meanwhile racing against time to pass seemingly insurmountable obstacles, such as preparing an electoral list and determining how many Iraqis inside and outside the country can vote. Ayar says the commission wants to finish that task by the end of the month. Others are not so optimistic.