Election Daze

In Iraq, Washington’s unpopular electoral plans await U.N. approval. It’s a neocon nightmare.


Twice during his Sunday interview with Tim Russert, a frustrated President Bush tried to deflect tough questions by quipping that “the political season has started.” Of course, Bush’s comments might be considered proof enough of his statement. But it’s still interesting that Bush didn’t make the same observation about the situation in Iraq.

Then again, it might be entirely understandable that Bush didn’t dwell on the current political dynamics in Baghdad. After all, while it’s definitely political season in Iraq, the administration’s electoral plans are in even shakier shape in Baghdad than in Washington. And, to add insult to neocon injury, the administraton’s plans for Iraq’s political future are in the hands of the United Nations.

A U.N. team, in Iraq on a mission of undetermined length, met this weekend with the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council to discuss the feasibility of holding elections by Washington’s June 30 deadline. Predictably, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said that the June 30 election date remains the target. For now.

That must be particularly galling for the war party unilateralists on Team Bush. But the White House has little choice. As Murhaf Jouejati a scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington tells the Christian Science Monitor:

“The US administration is going to have to backtrack on its own mechanism of having caucuses, which the Iraqis neither like nor understand. If [the US hurries] through with a flawed system, then [Iraqi insurgents] will seize on those flaws to justify their ongoing resistance.”

Already distrusted by a majority of the Iraqi public, the administration desperately needs the approval of the U.N. team to convince the nation’s squabbling factions and their supporters that Washington will not engineer a puppet government.

According to a Jan. 26 poll, about 60 percent of Iraqis polled were against the continued occupation of Iraq. Which is hardly surprising. But the local opinion polls also found a dramatically higher degree of respect for the U.N.

Now, Washington is openly considering backtracking on the June 30 deadline — although the official position remains that the sooner the handover, the better. Coalition spokesman Dan Senor says “We think it is very important not only to meet the request to continually hand over authority to the Iraqi people, but also to stick to a deadline that we agreed upon with the Iraqi leadership.”
Still, Pentagon boss Donald Rumsfeld told a meeting with Congress last week that it was possible the date could be shifted “depending on the way the world evolves.”

Of course, unless the world evolves in a dramatic and unexpected manner, the troops Rumsfeld is charged with directing aren’t likely to leave Iraq anytime soon, and U.S. control isn’t about to diminish. As Phyllis Bennis, a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies writes in Asia Times:

“The administration of President George W Bush is lying about the deadline, claiming that it will lead to a “transfer of sovereignty” and the “end of US occupation” in Iraq. A real “end to occupation” requires the withdrawal of US troops. Transferring nominal authority from one US-selected Iraqi agency to another US-vetted Iraqi organization does not equal an end to occupation.

The Bush administration wants to be able to claim “the occupation is over” and “troops are being withdrawn” as summer campaigning for the November presidential election in the United States heats up. Under the current plan, the reality will be the continuation of military occupation, with a US-backed “sovereign” government “requesting” that US troops remain. The US will withdraw 20,000-25,000 troops with great fanfare, hoping the voters will forget about the 100,000 or so US troops that will remain, and the likely continuation of significant casualties among US troops.”

Meanwhile, Iraq’s political factions are learning the lessons from Washington, fiercely lobbying both sides. Yes, Mr. President, the political season has started.