Hasty elections could divide Iraq

Original story found here.

No matter which candidate wins in November, he will face his first challenge in Iraq.

President George W. Bush keeps promising that Iraq’s first national elections will be held in January, even if they only take place, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said, in “three-quarters or four- fifths” of the nation. Sen. John Kerry, meanwhile, has yet to articulate any meaningful position on Iraq, as both candidates are reluctant to raise issues they can’t resolve.

But we cannot afford to ignore Iraq’s rising tide of violence. Yesterday, a rocket attack hit the Sheraton Hotel in Baghdad. And, if the Bush administration goes ahead quickly toward elections, the president may end up doing something that he promised he would never do: breaking up Iraq into three parts largely along ethnic and religious lines.

Of course, this is not what the administration had in mind for Iraq. But it will be one sure result of any attempt to hold elections in the middle of an escalating insurgent war. It would be risky if not impossible to hold elections in the Sunni Triangle, where most of the insurgency is based. But, if these areas are excluded from the voting, Iraq will be left with two noncontiguous, self-governing entities by the Kurdish minority in the north and the Shia majority in the south.

The insurgency itself is not what many may think. Rather than enjoy either broad geographic reach or diverse popular support, most of the armed resistance is limited to one part of Iraq and is being mostly carried out by one population group. Over the past month, a private security firm documented more than 2,300 attacks against U.S.-led forces stretching across the entire nation.

But about 80 percent of the attacks were concentrated in [or around] the Sunni Triangle along both the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys and in Baghdad itself.

There was only one attack last month, for example, in the southern city of Najaf, as by then the rebellion led by Muqtada al-Sadr, the young son of a cleric killed by Saddam Hussein, was already over. The Shia resistance declined after his al-Mahdi militia suffered heavy casualties and the more respected, elder surviving cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, brokered a cease-fire. Now al-Sistani is demanding nationwide elections, while al-Sadr has gone back and forth about whether he will disarm his militia and will participate in the January elections.

Sporadic Shia resistance continues in the Sadr city slum of Baghdad, but most of the remaining insurgency is concentrated in the Sunni Triangle.

For a while, Rumsfeld and others tried to blame foreign fighters tied to al-Qaida for most of the violence in Iraq. Today, these foreign Islamists remain active out of proportion to their relatively small numbers inside Iraq, and they are responsible, indeed, for many recent beheadings of kidnapped Westerners.

But by now even Rumsfeld’s own intelligence analysts agree that the bulk of the Iraqi resistance is not only homegrown but also deeply rooted among Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority population.

Even though ethnic Arabs of the mainstream Sunni Muslim religion are a majority in most Arab nations, they are a minority in Iraq of, at most, 17 percent of the population. Both the Kurds in the north, who constitute about 20 percent of Iraqis, and the Shia Arabs in the slums around Baghdad and in the south, who make up at least 60 percent of Iraqis, are more numerous. But it is Sunni Arabs, albeit through more rural tribes under Hussein than before, who have long dominated the region.

Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority has little incentive to compete in elections with other population groups, as introducing any pluralism into Iraq would only end the Sunnis’ long-standing monopoly on power. Combined with the heavy-handedness of U.S. forces, killing many civilians including women and children in cities like Fallujah and Samarra, the Sunni Arab insurgency has grown even deeper roots throughout the Sunni Triangle — which really has only two sides, along the Euphrates and Tigris. The insurgency also extends north along the Tigris as far as Mosul into areas dominated by Christian Arabs, who also rose to power under Hussein.

Even the best possible deployment of U.S. firepower and tactics cannot prevent the specter of moderate Iraqis being blown apart as they try to vote, even if it is possible to hold secure elections in most of the country.

Elections could well lead to more self-government for the “four-fifths” of Iraqis who live in either the south or the north. But these two model areas would still be split by a limited but raging insurgency alongside them and in between.

The Bush administration has backed itself into a corner. If elections are not held across Iraq, as al-Sistani is demanding, Washington risks provoking a broad Shia insurgency that would be even harder to handle than all the anti-American resistance there so far. Yet, holding elections while the Sunni insurgency is raging can only lead to the de facto breakup of Iraq.

Arguably, the administration has no choice, as it must keep its promise to Iraqis to hold elections. But, through elections in most but not all of the country, President Bush will be breaking the strategic promise he made not to divide the Iraqi nation. Rather than unite the nation under a legitimate government, wartime elections will split Iraq into three enclaves without any foreseeable plan to bring them back together.