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View From Baghdad

Will yesterday's election make a difference? Patrick Cockburn reports from Baghdad.
excerpts from The New Zealand Herald:

By Patrick Cockburn

"... The reason there was a poll yesterday was that the US, facing an escalating war against the five million Sunni, dared not provoke revolt by the 15-16 million Shiites. The price the US paid was an election in which the Shiites would show they are a majority of Iraqis.

But will the election yesterday involve a real transfer of power to the Shiites? Last June, Iraqi sovereignty was supposedly transferred to the US-appointed interim Government of Iyad Allawi. The change was largely a mirage. The Government still depends for its existence on the presence of 150,000 US troops.

The wall-to-wall media coverage of the election obscured several of the realities of political life in Iraq. The National Assembly now being elected will have limited powers. It is constituted so no single community can dominate the others. But, as in Lebanon, this may be a recipe for paralysis. The Assembly must elect a president and two vice-presidents and they will in turn choose a prime minister and ministers. The successful candidate will be the person with the fewest enemies.

The Shiites were not going to the polling stations yesterday for the pleasure of risking mortars and suicide bombers. Their leaders have told them that they will obtain real power for the first time.

Some US commentators have wondered if Washington might not be able to hold Iraq or at least remain in covert control by relying on the Kurds and the Shiites. Together they make up 80 per cent of the population. This is known as "the 20 per cent solution" whereby the US will be able to deal with a rebellion supported by the Sunnis, who make up 20 per cent of the population.

This policy is based on a misconception. The Sunni are resisting the US occupation in arms. The Shiites have not joined this rebellion, though Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi army fought the US for Najaf last August.

A central feature of Iraqi politics is that since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein the US has become steadily more unpopular in Iraq outside Kurdistan. This is true of the Shiites as well as the Sunni. An opinion poll by Zogby International in the last few days shows that the Sunni Arabs who want the US out now or very soon total 82 per cent. The proportion of Shiites wanting the US to go is less than the Sunni but still overwhelming at 69 per cent. Shiite religious leaders told their followers to vote yesterday as the quickest way to end the occupation.

The unpopularity of the US presence in Shiite districts is confirmed in the street. "What did the US ever do for us?" asked labourers, all Shiites, unloading gas cylinders from a truck. "God bless Saddam!"

Praise for Saddam Hussein from a Shiite in a public place would have been unheard of 18 months ago.

The enthusiasm with which so many Shiites went to the polls yesterday is a doubt-edged weapon. They did so in the belief that their ballots would translate into power. They will not be satisfied if the new National Assembly is a photocopy of the present government, nominally sovereign, but largely dependent on the US. " full story



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