Iraqis must brave the violence and vote

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 January, 2005, 12:00am

The landmark elections in Iraq on January 30 will take place in chaotic conditions dominated by widespread fear and violence. This is becoming increasingly clear as security worsens.

Attacks by insurgents have been escalating as polling day approaches and they have hit almost every part of the country. Foreign workers continue to be targeted, as shown by yesterday's kidnapping of eight mainlanders, in an effort to put pressure on their governments.

Election officials have been murdered and the Iraqi security forces - responsible for safeguarding the polls - are bearing the brunt of the attacks. Many have been killed and thousands more have resigned because they fear for their lives. Polling stations - including schools - came under mortar fire this week.

But the kidnapping of a Catholic archbishop most strikingly symbolises the reign of anarchy and terror. Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa was snatched by armed men outside his home in Mosul and bundled into the boot of a car.

Christians have been targeted in recent months as religion and politics in Iraq have become increasingly intertwined. But this is the first time a prominent Christian has been singled out. Although, thankfully, the archbishop has been released, it seems his kidnapping may have been intended to discourage Christians from voting in the polls.

It has certainly added to the climate of fear, which has prevented campaigning of the kind that would normally be associated with a national election.

Many of the parties have preferred not to reveal the names of the candidates on their lists. The location of polling stations has, until recently, been kept secret - even from the security forces. Candidates tend to decline to give television interviews and public campaigning has become virtually impossible.

The Election Commission is even planning to provide potential electors with cryptic messages telling them how to vote. The idea is to get the information across in a way that prevents it from being used by terrorists.

Add to all this a boycott by the Sunni Muslim minority, representing 20 per cent of the population, and the prospect of a meaningful election becomes even more remote.

It is easy to understand why there have been widespread calls for the polls to be postponed. But the election, however unsatisfactory it may turn out to be, is the only hope the Iraqi people have of a better future. It will lead to a government that at least has a measure of legitimacy - and a chance of making progress. The poll must, therefore, go ahead as planned, despite all the manifest difficulties.

There are signs that the election is - for all its problems - supported by most Iraqi people. A recent poll in Baghdad found that two-thirds of the respondents intended to vote. Some officials are predicting a high turnout. And Iraqi expatriates, who can vote in 14 countries, showed their enthusiasm when they began registering this week.

The Shi'ite majority - 60 per cent of the population - has steadfastly backed the election and resisted provocation from Sunni insurgents intended to provoke a civil war. The Shi'ites stand to gain the most from the polls, with their United Iraqi Alliance expected to win the most seats.

Postponing the election would amount to a betrayal of the Shi'ites, who were suppressed under Saddam Hussein. It might even lead to this powerful group deciding to take the law into its own hands. Delaying the poll would also send the wrong message to the insurgents. It would encourage them to continue their campaign of violence and perhaps cause Iraq to descend into a bloody civil war.

The violence will not end after the election. And the new government will face a huge task as it attempts to restore peace, security - and unity. But the historic poll is the first necessary step towards achieving that goal. The alternatives are too terrible to contemplate.