Discussion on Upcoming Election Reflects Division among Iraqis

Posted: January 28, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Robin Herron

A panel discussion on the upcoming election in Iraq sponsored by George Mason’s Center for Global Studies and the Iraqi American Alliance on Wednesday showed Iraqis disagree on whether elections should be held now or postponed until there is less violence and more stability in the country.

Ala Fa’ik, an Iraqi American human rights and democracy activist associated with the Iraqi Forum for Democracy and the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, strongly favors holding elections immediately. He pointed to the example of India, where the first democratic elections took place while Britain still occupied the country. “Peace is the key,” he said. “I’m looking for a lasting, just peace.” He added, “The election is not the final stage. It’s just the beginning.”

While expatriate Iraqis can register and vote in the United States, their brethren in Iraq must face the dangers of getting to a polling place. Fa’ik read from a list of news reports about Iraqis’ reactions to those dangers, which ranged from a refusal to risk their lives to get to the polls to one Iraqi saying that he looks forward to becoming a martyr in order to vote.

Phebe Marr, a senior fellow from the United States Institute of Peace and author of The Modern History of Iraq, sees the election as a necessary “step forward.” Marr, who identified herself as an observer of the process, explained the complicated slate of candidates, which includes not only individuals, but also parties and coalitions. “To me, the question is, how are these blocks and alliances going to hold up after the election? What I want to see is some seasoned and pragmatic politicians elected who are going to come together.”

Panelists at Iraq election discussion
From left, panelists Anas Shallal and Ala Fa’ik, along with moderator Reuben Brigety, greet audience members after the panel discussion.
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Marr said the most significant tasks for the new assembly will be to form a government and draft a constitution. In drafting a constitution, the major issues are: deciding on the “Kurdish issue”—what the boundaries of the Kurds’ area will be and how much authority they will have; how much of a role religion will play in the assembly; what Iraq’s relationship with the United States will be; and how to deal with the insurgency and the alienation of the Sunni population. “Ethnic and sectarian identity is stronger now than at any time before,” Marr pointed out. “That’s not good for the government and could erode the state.”

Anas Shallal, an Iraqi American activist and businessman who founded Iraqi Americans for Peaceful Alternatives, disagreed with the other panelists, saying the elections should be postponed until the various factions and coalitions could get together and build a foundation for democracy.

“The bad news is that the insurgency is not slowing down and probably will get worse,” he said. He pointed out that election observers are hundreds of miles away because it’s too dangerous to be on site. People don’t know where to vote, when to vote, and don’t have enough information on the candidates and platforms, he said. And in places like Fallujah, people can’t vote because they’ve been displaced from their homes.

“The rumor mill is where most Iraqis get their news, and they’ve heard that if they vote, they will be condemned to eternal damnation or they won’t get their food rations,” Shallal reported. In a country where water, gasoline, and jobs are scarce, “elections are the last of their priorities,” he declared.

“The election will be deemed illegitimate even before the votes are tallied,” Shallal concluded. “This is a dubious process. It will further divide and alienate the Iraqi people.”

Questions from audience members, most of whom identified themselves as Iraqi American, showed a divergence of opinion on the election as well. One saw the election as a power-grab for individuals, while another said it was better to have an election than stand still. Another revealed there is a rumor mill here in the United States that says Iraqi Americans who vote in the election will be stripped of their American citizenship and deported.

The panelists were also questioned about what a reasonable turnout for the election would be for it to be considered legitimate. “I don’t know what is a good turnout,” Marr said. “Legitimacy is in the eye of the beholder.” And while she wouldn’t pinpoint a percentage for a good turnout, she said, “If it’s low, it will be a vote for insurgency. If it’s higher, it will be a vote for democracy.”

Reuben Brigety, assistant professor of government and politics at Mason, moderated the panel.

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