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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 December 2005, 12:29 GMT
Key questions raised by Iraq's election

By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor, in Baghdad

Last week's parliamentary election in Iraq was greeted with relief and enthusiasm by supporters of US President George W Bush. In Washington, conservative politicians dipped their fingers in purple ink to show solidarity with Iraqi voters.

But what will it mean for Iraq's and America's future? Let's look at a few specific questions:

1. How much of a success was it?

Iraqi Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum
Some US politicians inked their fingers like Iraqi Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum
As an exercise in public support for the political process it was hugely successful. The turn-out was high, the proportion of Sunni Muslim voters impressive, the level of violence low.

The Sunni insurgents understood the importance of the election for their community, and in many cases encouraged people to vote.

The January election, which was also hailed as a big success in London and Washington, lacked many of the most important elements of this one.

In January, British and American officials relied on a widespread lack of understanding about Iraq's situation by emphasising the big turn-out of Shia and Kurdish voters (who had everything to gain from a new political deal) and trying to ignore the boycott by Sunnis (who had everything to lose).

By contrast the 15 December election was everything the 30 January election was cracked up to be and wasn't.

2. Was it fair?

Reasonably so, but there was a lot of low-level chicanery, all the same.

The former government spokesman, Laith Kubba, who stood as leader of a small but distinguished list of independent candidates, told me he had been approached by four men who offered to boost his voting score.

The election showed how much Iraqis want a peaceful outcome which will keep the country united, rather than break it up
Their system was to work out the average number of votes which a particular polling-station was likely to receive, then get the official in charge to close his doors a couple of hours early.

Specially selected people would get to work, filling in the ballot-papers in Mr Kubba's favour, up to the credible number.

He said no - but others will have probably have taken advantage of the offer.

3. Will the election help to solve Iraq's political problems?

Not necessarily, alas.

The election showed how much Iraqis of all backgrounds want a strong and successful government. It also showed that they want a peaceful outcome which will keep the country united, rather than break it up.

So far, so good. But after the January election the politicians haggled for three months over the shape of the new government. The result was drift, public disillusionment, and contempt for the political process.

This time the politicians have another chance. But they're the same old figures, and nothing has changed except that a new group - the Sunnis - has been added to the mix.

This may make it harder to get a successful coalition quickly, since the Sunnis may hold out for a higher price for their participation.

No one doubts the courage and determination of ordinary people to come out and vote; what's in question is the quality of the politicians they've elected.

4. Will the election undercut the strength of the insurgency?

President Bush's strategy is predicated on the idea that it will.

But why did so many insurgent leaders (with the exception of the religious extremists, who are in a definite minority) encourage the Sunni population to come out and vote?

The American academic Dr Juan Cole draws a comparison with the IRA and Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland: they used both the Armalite rifle and the ballot-box in their campaign.

The idea that voting necessarily drives out the men of violence is deeply questionable.

5. Is there now less of a danger of civil war and the break-up of Iraq?

Ukrainian soldiers
As more soldiers leave, the risk of all-out civil war increases
All-out civil war on the scale of the former Yugoslavia certainly can't be ruled out.

But the Shias, on the urging of their religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, have been remarkably steadfast in refusing to respond to deliberate attempts to goad them into violent retaliation.

Still, some revenge attacks have happened, and no-one can be sure that the Iraqi state will definitely survive. But so far it's proved remarkably resilient.

6. Can the US withdraw its troops from Iraq soon?

It will have to, with the mid-term elections coming up in Washington next November.

But no-one has yet managed to explain how, if 160,000 US troops cannot stop the insurrection in Iraq, cutting down their numbers is going to make it easier for the Iraqi police and army to do the job.

7. Does the election mean that Mr Bush will regain the support he has lost?

Looking back over a long succession of wars of occupation fought by First World countries in Third World ones, from Iraq to, say, Algeria, I can't think of one where a government which chose to get heavily involved kept its initial popularity.

The only successful wars which the First World has fought in the Third World have been short and decisive, like the Falklands campaign and the first Gulf War. Once public opinion turns decisively against a war, it never seems to turn back.

The Iraqi election was a big success for the Iraqi people. Whether it will be a success for President Bush is a great deal less certain.

Do you agree with John Simpson's views? Was the Iraqi election a success? Will it help bring about a more peaceful Iraq? Send us your comments.


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