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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 December 2005, 05:20 GMT
Iraqi ship ploughs on in choppy waters

By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

If Iraq was a ship one might be saying at this stage: "Unsteady as she goes."

The ship of the Iraqi state has a course set for constitutional government, leading, it is hoped, to stable and democratic rule in a unified country.

Electoral workers in Iraq
A successful election, but no functional government yet
Whether it will reach that destination is still unclear, though what is certain is that the waters are rough.

The biggest plus as one looks ahead is that elections for the new assembly - the Council of Representatives as it is to be called - produced a 70% turnout with no boycott by the Sunnis.

The American view is that elections are like a magic wand and produce their own beneficial effect. This may be so but elections have to produce viable governments.

An election in El Salvador in 1982 went off well in terms of numbers but the civil war there went on for another decade. If it took 10 years to pacify Iraq, it might not be so bad in terms of time historically, but in terms of casualties it would be tragic.

Long road to government

The turnout in Iraq therefore will now have to be converted into a functional government and the timetable could stretch out for some time - up to three months or so if there is serious disagreement - because so many procedures have to be gone through first.

A press conference called by Iraqi political parties concerned that electoral fraud took place
Some Sunni and secular parties allege the election was tainted
The results have to be formally declared, the parties have to negotiate for a coalition, a presidential council has to be selected and then a prime minister and a government.

The results so far indicate that Iraqis voted according to sectional and religious interests. The US ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, said: "It looks as if people have preferred to vote for their ethnic or sectarian identities, but for Iraq to succeed there has to be cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian co-operation."

So the Shias dominate, the Kurds are a strong minority, the secular are suffering but the Sunnis are protesting. Indeed the main Sunni grouping, the Iraq Accord Front, claiming fraud, is threatening to boycott the assembly if there is no re-run vote in some areas. Since there will be no re-run, it remains to be seen if this threat will be put into practice.

"We're going to have to face the fact that there are strong centrifugal forces in Iraq that have the potential of tearing the country apart," James Dobbins, a former US diplomat in the Balkans and now with the Rand Corporation, said in the Los Angeles Times.

And even if the Sunnis do join the assembly, it may be that they are simply opening up a new front to urge the removal of US and other foreign forces. It does not mean that the insurgency will end.

The election may be over but the war is not.


What also has to happen, in the view of British and US officials, is that the Shias have to bend a bit and offer the Sunnis more in talks about amending the constitution. A move on the distribution of oil wealth to share out future discoveries more evenly would help.

On the security front, much remains to be done. The plan is that the Iraqis should take over progressively but the implementation has been weak because of the poor state of the Iraqi police.

US soldiers raid a house in the Iraqi city of Hawija
US troop levels are higher than they were two years ago
If this process can be improved, then some troops are likely to go but this should not be mistaken for a withdrawal. Even if a few thousand US soldiers left now, the troop levels would still be higher than they were two years ago.

2005 has been a difficult year in Iraq but the place has still amazingly held together despite the worst efforts of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his al-Qaeda cohorts.

It is instructive to note the language they use in the statements they issue on the internet and how it could not be less amenable to dialogue.

The Shias are termed "the grandchildren of the al-Alqami", which is a derogatory term for Shias and a reference to Ibn al-Alqami, a Shia minister who was accused of betraying the Caliph during the Mongol Huluqu's attack on Baghdad in 1258.

Iraqi political leaders are "polytheists" who took part in the "prostitution wedding of heresy and immorality" or elections. The Iraqi security forces are "pagan" and the foreign troops of course are the "crusaders".

We will hear more such terminology in the coming year.

The question is whether these forces can be so isolated that they cease to have a significant effect. Much of the insurgency is carried on by Sunnis not motivated by such extreme ideals and who are more concerned with foreign occupation and the protection of their own communities and interests.

If the new government can give these people hope, then Iraq will have some hope.



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