Published on Thursday, December 16, 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Election Outcome Might Not Please US
Shiite Victory Likely to Take Nation in Islamic Direction
by Anna Badkhen
President Bush has been vigorously advocating the Jan. 30 election in war-ravaged Iraq, but is he ready for the consequences?
Should Bush's wish come true, the new Iraqi government that will rise to power probably will bear little resemblance to the Washington-friendly, pro- Western leadership of secular interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, analysts say.
"They will have a Shia-dominated, Islamic-oriented government in Iraq," said Rashid Khalidi, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. "Is the United States ready for that?"
Iraq's Shiites make up 60 percent of the country's nearly 26 million people and are more likely to vote in January's election than Sunni Muslims, who represent 20 percent of Iraqis. Most Sunnis live in central Iraq, where raging violence threatens to prevent voters from going to the polls, and leading Sunni clerics have called for a boycott of the election.
In this situation, a powerful alliance of Shiite groups, formed at the initiative of Iraq's most revered spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani, is poised to win a dominant share of the 275-seat National Assembly, which will elect a prime minister and Cabinet from within its ranks.
Alliance leaders have said they consider negotiating a date for the withdrawal of America's troops one of their main orders of business. Firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has instigated two violent uprisings against U.S.- led forces and vehemently opposes the U.S. occupation, called Tuesday for a guarantee of immediate departure of foreign troops after the elections. While not an official member of the Shiite coalition, he has endorsed several candidates on the coalition's list who describe themselves as independents. On Wednesday, the first day of the election campaign, Hazem Shaalan, the defense minister in Allawi's interim Cabinet, called the alliance "an Iranian list" that wants Iraq to be run by Shiite clerics.
Shaalan's comment reflected concerns that leading figures in a new government, notably Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the first name on the Shiite coalition's list, have close ties to Iran.
All this would seem to be a far cry from the Bush administration's vision of a secular, democratic Iraq that would become America's crucial ally in the Middle East, one that would even establish diplomatic relations with Israel.
"A stable, democratic country in the foreseeable future in Iraq is not probable," said Shibley Telhami, an expert on Iraq at the Brookings Institution. "The next government ... is not likely to be as responsive to the U.S. as Allawi's has been."
U.S. officials and experts close to the Bush administration play down such concerns. "Yeah, there will be a Shia majority, but the Shia aren't united. Some are more religious, some are more secular," said a senior State Department official, who did not wish to be named.
While the United States does not have "any expectation that there would be any victory for anybody other than Shiites," the Bush administration will be able to influence the new government, especially in the drawing up of a new constitution next year, said Danielle Pletka, an expert on Iraq at the American Enterprise Institute.
"It's really a question of moving the process ahead and providing a genuine mandate to the new prime minister and president of Iraq and getting them on track and helping them draft the new constitution," she said, describing a leading role she believes the United States will continue to play in the future of Iraq.
"You try to make sure the safeguards (that ensure a plurality in government, with protection for minority groups as laid out in the transitional law) get carried through," the State Department official said. But analysts warn that, unlike the current, U.S.-friendly interim government led by Allawi, a future Iraqi government will likely see the emergence of more conservative Islamic groups.
By putting al-Hakim first on the list of its ranking members, the main Shiite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance, is suggesting that he may take a senior position in the new government.
Allawi's future is less clear. He announced Wednesday that he will run for the National Assembly, backed by a 240-member bloc of Sunni and Shiite tribal leaders and clerics. He pledged to promote national unity and move away from "religious and ethnic fanaticism" if elected.
The Supreme Council and the Islamic Dawa Party, another member of the main Shiite coalition, have ties to Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the military force that has served as the main pillar of support for the Islamic republic. "Any legitimately elected Shiite government in Iraq is not likely to have a confrontational relationship with Iran," said Telhami of Brookings. "They have cultural ties, religious ties and personal ties. They will want to have a partnership. It's going to put the U.S. in a difficult bind."
But Telhami and other analysts say the presence of clerics like al-Hakim in a future government would probably not lead to the creation of an Iranian- style theocracy. Iraq's top Shiite religious leaders have traditionally opposed direct rule by clerics, and many of the groups in the Shiite alliance are secular in nature, they point out.
"If a broad coalition sticks together, there has to be some sort of balance here," said Alan Keiswetter, former deputy secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in the Clinton and Bush administrations and an expert on Iraq at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Yet, a newly elected new government will be pressed to end the U.S. occupation in order to retain legitimacy with Iraqis who have tired of the American presence, said Nathan Brown , director of the Middle East Studies program at George Washington University. And to end the violence plaguing the country, the government may feel forced to negotiate with Iraqi insurgents who have increasingly targeted Iraqis they view as pro-American -- a move that will likely not sit well with the Bush administration.
To stop the attacks, "the new Iraqi government could sit down and negotiate with" the rebels, Brown said. "The only thing they could put on the table is asking the Americans to leave."
But Pletka said the new Iraqi government can't afford to get rid of U.S. troops as long as insurgents continue to mount daily attacks on Iraqi and American targets. "If ... there is less security, that reduces the chance that the U.S. is asked to leave," she said.
Even, as seems likely, U.S. withdrawal will be a major issue for the new government, "it will have to be over a period of some time -- two years, four years," said Keiswetter. "Some sort of strong military support is going to be necessary for some time."
But, most analysts say, the Bush administration cannot afford to backtrack on the election process, no matter where it leads.
While the United States has been fighting a predominantly Sunni uprising, Iraqi's Shiites, for the most part, have been compliant with the U.S. presence. This has been largely "because they've been promised that the election will take place," and they expect to win this election, Brown said. If they sense that Washington is backtracking in any way, they might join the uprising against the occupation.
"There aren't a lot of attractive American options right now," Brown said. Top contenders
Some prominent candidates in Iraq's elections:
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