Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Rigging the Iraqi referendum

There's a bit of good news coming out of Iraq today:

Iraq's Parliament voted today to cancel a last-minute rule change that would have made it almost impossible for Iraq's new constitution to fail in the upcoming national referendum.

The reversal came a day after United Nations official in Baghdad told Shiite and Kurdish leaders that the new rule was a violation of international election standards. Sunni Arab leaders who oppose the constitution had also criticized the rule change, saying it amounted to rigging the referendum in advance.

The Shiite and Kurdish leaders capitulated today, with 119 of 157 legislators voting to cancel the rule change. But Shiite leaders said they were still deeply concerned about whether the vote would be fair, and they left the door open to challenging the results if the constitution fails on Oct. 15.

The Shiite leaders said they believed insurgents might manipulate the vote through selective violence. They said they had agreed to cancel the change only after securing a promise from the Iraqi government that it would prevent that from happening.

But there is still cause for concern:

The dispute over the referendum has already sharpened sectarian divisions over the constitution, and the uneasy resolution today seemed to open the door to further dissension, especially if the violence grows worse.

The Shiite leaders gave no hint about what standard they would use in judging the legitimacy of the vote, which is almost certain to be accompanied by major insurgent attacks.

Just hours after legislators debated the constitution in Baghdad, a bomb in Hilla, south of Baghdad, tore through a Shiite mosque, killing at least 25 people and wounding more than 87, police officials said. The bomb was placed near the entrance to the Ibn Al-Nama mosque and detonated just as the call to prayer began, marking the first day of the holy month of Ramadan for Shiites, said Ahssan al-Khalidi, spokesman for the Hilla police department.

Some Sunni Arab leaders, who had threatened to boycott the referendum after hearing of the rule change, expressed relief about today's vote. But many remained angry that the change had been made in the first place.

There are some
serious problems with the proposed constitution, but fixing the referendum rules to ensure success could have intensified the already tense sectarianism that divides the Sunnis, formerly the Iraq's rulers under Saddam, from the majority Shiite-Kurd coalition in the Iraqi Parliament.

Iraq already faces enough ongoing problems — the troubled and largely overhyped reconstruction, Shiite extremism in the south (where the British are facing threats from insurgents and discontents), and an insurgency that is showing no signs of letting up.

Furthermore, the Bush Administration and the American occupation generally are face increasing criticism not just from the anti-war movement but from influential figures on the right, such as Chuck Hagel and Francis Fukuyama.

And here's what John McCain said a few days ago to General Myers at a joint hearing of the Senate and House Armed Services committees: "General Myers seems to assume that things have gone well in Iraq. General Myers seems to assume that the American people, the support for our conflict there is not eroding. General Myers seems to assume that everything has gone fine and our declarations of victory, of which there have been many, have not had an impact on American public opinion. Things have not gone as we had planned or expected, nor as we were told by you, General Myers. And that's why I'm very worried, because I think we have to win this conflict."

Vietnam Iraq may or may not be, but McCain is right. The United States has to win. There is no other option.

But winning means not just defeating the insurgency, to the degree that that is even possible, but constructing a viable Iraqi government to take charge of a reconstructed Iraq. The parliamentary elections back in January went some way towards that goal, but Iraq now needs a constitution before it can continue the arduous task of building a stable, long-term democracy.

It is tempting to approve of the effort to lower the threshold for popular approval of Iraq's proposed constitution, but Iraq's democracy must be built legitimately and without recourse to such desperate measures. That is, both the process and the constitution itself must be recognized as legitimate by all three major groups if Iraq is ever to be anything more than a fragmented union threatened by sectarian strife and general mistrust.

Obstacles abound and the insurgency will continue to wreak havoc throughout the country, but at least the upcoming referendum won't be "rigged". Iraqis, after all, need to know that democracy isn't a game.

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