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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 December 2005, 00:44 GMT
Iraq election: Turning point at last?

By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

One is tempted to say "here we go again" - another Iraqi event which is supposed to be the turning point.

Iraqi soldier with flag saying "Elect Iraq"
Iraqi soldier in Baghdad: his flag says "Elect Iraq"

We have had the invasion, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the elections in January to the transitional government, the constitutional agreement and the referendum approving it.

All of these were supposed, in their different ways, to mark the moment when Iraqi democracy would take hold, the insurgency would slacken and hopes of a foreign troop withdrawal would become reality.

Now we have what is supposed to be the big daddy of them all - elections for a fully constitutional Iraqi government.

President Bush is certainly turning up the volume.

He called 2005 not just a momentous year for Iraq but for the whole Middle East and beyond. In the third of his recent speeches to rally support for his policies on Iraq he declared:

"There's still a lot of difficult work to be done in Iraq, but thanks to the courage of the Iraqi people, the year 2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq, the history of the Middle East, and the history of freedom."

And the neo-conservatives in Washington have not given up. In an article in the Wall Street Journal on 12 December, Norman Podhoretz suggested that gloom and doom in Iraq was like the depression in the 13 American colonies in the early stages of their war with Britain - with one big difference.

"In Iraq today and in the Middle East as a whole, a successful outcome is staring us in the face," he wrote.

Again, "successful outcome" has still to be defined.

Whether it turns out like that remains to be seen. A certain amount of caution, to say the least, is justified by events. And there are those who argue, anyway, that the cost will have been too high, whatever the results.

But certainly the election is a major event and it is important to listen to what Iraqis themselves are saying about it to see if there is any basis for hope.

Opinion poll

We can listen to them because an opinion survey was published this week by Oxford Research International on behalf of the BBC and other media groups.

The survey showed considerable faith in democracy but also a desire for a "strong leader." In answer to the question: "What do you think Iraq needs after the election planned for December 2005?", 51% said a "single strong leader" and 28% said "An Iraqi democracy".

The likelihood is that a coalition government led by the majority Shias will emerge but lacking the charismatic figurehead which many Iraqis want

In fact the two are not seen as incompatible since a different question about what Iraq needed now brought a response of 75% calling for a strong leader and 74% for democracy.

This demand for the leader is especially strong in the main Sunni central belt, where the insurgency is strongest, and weakest in the Kurdish areas, which are the most stable.

They probably won't get that person.

The same poll failed to show support for any one individual and the likelihood is that a coalition government led by the majority Shias will emerge but lacking the charismatic figurehead that many Iraqis want.

The survey also shows a definite intention to vote, with 83% of those interviewed saying they would do so. This time there should be no major Sunni boycott.

That result is a considerable rise on the same responses late last year ahead of the January election.

The survey also shows that the foreign forces are not popular but that the Iraqi army and police are. This indicates support for the current US policy of trying to hand over to Iraqi forces and offering an Iraqi solution to the insurgency. Again whether that actually happens is the issue.

All this is not unhopeful for US policymakers.

The whole picture

And yet opinion polls and official figures do not always give the whole picture.

I used to go to one country in Central America, El Salvador, in the 1980s. It had a strong currency, low inflation, full employment, a balance of payments surplus etc - and it was in the middle of a civil war.

It, too, had what was regarded as a successful election in 1982, when people queued up for hours to vote and guerrillas failed to stop them. A guerrilla attack on the capital San Salvador from a nearby volcano was beaten back and a guerrilla ambush on fuel tankers on the Pan American highway was seen off.

The civil war went on for another 10 years.


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