February 27, 2004

Iraqi Elections Timetable

Ayatollah Sistani wants the elections by the end of '04. But even Kofi Annan agrees that they may have to go into '05:

"The United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, said last week that the earliest date for elections would be the end of this year, provided planning begins immediately. But he also implied that it would be difficult to stay on that timetable and suggested that elections could be held later in 2005."

Sistani, of course, doesn't want the caretaker government that comes into power on June 30th (the date of the sovereignty handover) to last too long. The longer such an unelected government is in power--that longer it takes the Shi'a majority to fully flex its electoral muscle.

Meanwhile, U.S. Iraq military commander Sanchez has some interesting comments:

"[Sanchez] said at a news conference in Baghdad today that he expected the pullback of United States units to camps outside the cities, or on the cities' outskirts, to take place by "mid- to late April," two months ahead of the date for the sovereignty transfer. But he said any Iraqi resistance groups planning to exploit the pullback "will be making a deadly error," because American troops will remain poised with "quick-reaction forces" to strike against any attackers inside the cities.

"Let me emphasize that this does not mean that we are not going to be in the cities," General Sanchez said, outlining plans for American troops to mount joint patrols with Iraqi security forces and to conduct any other military operations inside the cities that are judged necessary.

He gave a cautiously optimistic assessment of American progress in the war, saying he was confident that the new Iraqi political structures could be successfully defended by American and Iraqi forces and their allied partners. He refused to be drawn out on the question of whether American troop commanders considered the June 30 date for the sovereignty transfer to be too hasty a view common among other American officers in Iraq saying that the date was fixed.

But when he was pressed on the challenges American troops may face after June 30, he offered a mixed view. "The security situation is manageable whatever governance situation there may be."

Later, he was more cautious. "Is it possible the country could move to civil war, and U.S. forces could end up having to separate ethnic groups?" he said. "I think it's possible, but I don't think it's likely."

[emphasis added]

A few quick points.

I continue to be uncomfortable with the rapid Iraqification process and I remain wary that Iraqi police are adequately trained.

And doubtless some Iraqi resistance forces, whether rightly or not, will judge a U.S. pull back from the cities as a victory (like, for instance, a Hamas spin on a prospective pull-out from Gaza).

But I am heartened to see Sanchez strongly signal to our enemies that we will be positioned to re-enter the cities for counter-insurgency operations at will. We will need to prove that capability in the early days after such a pull-back.

Otherwise we will look too obsessed by force protection and our actions will take on the air of a quasi-retreat.

I'm also happy to see Sanchez admit a civil war is possible. Better to have commanders on the ground who understand the down-side scenarios well and aren't Panglossian.

More important, note that Sanchez stated that, should a civil war break out, U.S. forces would be employed to separate the internecine belligerents. In other words, we wouldn't cut and run.

The Iraq project would have become a full-blown crisis, and our success at preserving a unitary state all but doomed, but Sanchez is at least signalling we would work to stem the bloodsheed and help, at least, preside over the emergence of three independent or confederated statelets.

Call it the Les Gelb solution. I've previously discussed why I think it's a terrible idea.

But it's better than a faux-Iraqification and hasty retreat--leaving the Iraqis purely to their own devices--with the resultant carnage that likely implies. So I'm happy to see that we remain committed (despite the many errors made), come thick or thin, to making the best of a very difficult situation in Iraq.

Finally, note this part of the article:

"Mr. Annan said last week that one of the first necessary steps would be to have an election commission establish the rules and structure for a national vote. After that, he said, it would take at least eight months to set up polling places and other election hardware."

We better make damn sure those "polling places" are protected better than the, er, typical Iraqi police station these days.

You can be sure that polling stations will be the major terror and resistance targets in the advent to elections. We should be picking the location of polling stations, not only in terms of centrality and convenience for the locals, but with an eye towards ensuring each spot can be fully secured before, during and after the elections.

Posted by Gregory at February 27, 2004 12:13 PM
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