Monday, January 31, 2005

Five Points to Remember about Iraqi Elections

1. Yes, It Wasn't Any Worse Than We Thought

Indeed, quite a lot of people voted (latest figure 57% or perhaps somewhat less depending on reports). And there was no bloodbath comparable to (say) the slaughter of pilgrims in Najaf last year...

2. But That Ain't Saying Much

..but some 44 persons were blown up by suicide bombers, around 100 injured, and that's before we get to the RAF Hercules, of which more below. It seems to be a rapidly spreading meme that these elections were somehow comparable to the 1994 election in South Africa. We are asked if "liberals" or "the left" would have doubted the democracy of that contest because not enough Afrikaaners voted. This is silly. In South Africa in 1994, you could vote for a candidate whose name, record and policy you knew, in the constituency you lived in. You could drive to the poll if you so wished, because it was not necessary to ban all road traffic for fear of suicide car bombs. You could leave the country if you didn't want to participate. The lights were on, the telephone network functioned, there was water and there was fuel. Nobody shot down any aeroplanes. Nobody hit the US Embassy with a 107mm artillery rocket on the eve of the vote. And, crucially, the Afrikaaners had sufficient confidence in the new dispensation not to go to war if they lost. Such confidence is absent, hence the war.

3. That Hercules.

Some voices have been moaning about "the left" even mentioning the crash of the RAF C-130. Step forward, Belgravia Dispatch. This is reminiscent of the French journalist who was asked by the US Ambassador in South Vietnam "why he always saw the hole in the doughnut". His answer, possibly unbeatable, was "Because, Monsieur l'Ambassadeur, there is a hole in the doughnut". It's just as much news as romantic photos taken at the 5 (count'em!) polling stations in Baghdad where journalists were allowed to be. And, if it was indeed shot down, it is just as significant and important. Here's why.
It was making the trip from Baghdad to Balad. That's interesting in itself, because it's not even as far as Heathrow to Gatwick. And we know that the US Air Force has been hugely increasing the amount of freight and personnel they move inside Iraq by air, because the roads are too dangerous (That's what the head of Third Air Force said. Not me.) Balad is the biggest US logistic base in Iraq, home of the 13th Corps Support Command, and it is surrounded by a truly gigantic security perimeter to prevent aircraft going there from being shot down. What does this tell us about security North of Baghdad?

If the claim of responsibility by Ansar al-Islam is valid, it also tells us something about the insurgency. They mention using an "anti-tank missile" on the plane. Now, it's unlikely that this would be an RPG unless they attacked the aircraft during take -off or approach - not enough range. It may mean they are adapting a wire-guided missile to point at planes, which would give them much more range and also a guidance system immune to the defensive aids aboard our aircraft. These systems are intended to confuse heat-seeking and radar-guided weapons, and would have no benefit against a visually aimed and wire-guided weapon. Defensive aids protect against the SA-7 series weapons the insurgents have been using. Extending the security perimeter protects against small arms and RPGs (their next move). They may have adapted again. (Note: it is by no means certain the aircraft was shot down. But the possible causes of such a n accident are limited: basically a catastrophic structural failure (very unlikely), a mid-air collision (ruled out because no other aircraft are missing) - or hostile action.)

4. It's Possible to Vote for Un-democracy

In the absence of named candidates or any real campaign about policy, what is an election? The electorate seems to have broken just as predicted, along confessional and ethnic lines. Everyone thought the Shia would turn out in hordes and vote for the UIA because it was the party of Shi'ism. Everyone thought the Kurds would vote in droves for the Kurdish parties because they were the Kurdistan bloc. Everyone thought the Sunnis wouldn't vote. Question: is this an election at all, or a census defining tribal blocks? It will take monumental and unlikely restraint for either the Kurdish or Shia leaders not to draw up the constitution to suit their power interests. In which case (continued movement towards Kurdistan; theocracy) the war will certainly go on.

5. But, of course, it's possible to vote for democracy

Upshot? Certainly, it's impressive and good that there has been an election of sorts. And it's possible that, during the debates of the new assembly and the various regional bodies something like democratic practice will emerge. Democracy is a practice, not a thing. But there is no reason to think that the Iraq problem is much nearer solution. 54 people were killed yesterday, and this with totalitarian levels of security control. What will happen when the travel ban, vehicle ban, etc are relaxed?

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