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Skepticism Grows in Arab World Over Iraqi Election Plan - 2004-09-30


The planned elections in Iraq are now just four months away. But the country continues to be hit by violence virtually every day. Many in the Arab world, including senior officials, are wondering how valid elections can be held under these circumstances and some are already suggesting a postponement, which U.S. and Iraqi officials say will not happen.

In an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro this week, King Abdullah of Jordan expressed doubts about holding the Iraqi election on time.

The king said, "It seems impossible ? to organize indisputable elections in the chaos we see today." He added that extremists would likely gain the upper hand if an election is held.

The Chief of Cabinet of the Arab League Secretary General's office Hesham Youssef, says the Jordanian king's concerns are shared by many other League members.

"The security situation might lead to a situation whereby members of the international community who are interested and willing to participate in the supervision of the elections may be prevented from doing so," Mr. Youssef said. "This is why the concerns that were voiced by King Abdullah are legitimate concerns, not only by Jordan but by a number of Arab countries and also by a large number of the members of the international community."

Mr. Youssef says the Arab League is following Iraq's election preparations closely, and the League's Secretary General, Amr Moussa, recently held consultations with Iraqi and U.N. officials in New York. The United Nations has accepted the responsibility of organizing and supervising the Iraqi election to ensure that it is legitimate.

Iraqis are to vote by the end of January to elect a provisional parliament that will rule the country while a new constitution is written.

A conference to discuss the upcoming election and other issues in Iraq is tentatively scheduled to be convened in Egypt in mid-November. But the head of the Political Science Department at Cairo University, Hassan Nafae, says no final decisions have been made about the participants or agenda for the conference. Mr. Nafae is not optimistic about the prospects for holding elections in Iraq as scheduled, by the end of January.

"It will be impossible to hold the elections in January," Mr. Nafae said. "And if the current provisional Iraqi government insists on holding the elections in the areas where it is more peaceful or it is possible for the election to take place, it [the election] will be incomplete, and it will be impossible to recognize the government that will be the outcome of that election as a legitimate government."

Mr. Nafae says foreign forces must be out of Iraq, and the security situation must improve dramatically, before valid elections can be held. He does not think that will be any time soon.

But Uraib El Rantawi, the director of the Jerusalem Center for Political Studies in Amman, says that although Iraq faces particularly difficult elections, nothing is to be gained by delaying them. Mr. Rantawi suggests that ceasefires could be negotiated in time for the elections in all but a few Iraqi cities.

"When it comes to security issues like suicide attacks or anything else I think this will not prevent the Iraqi people from going to vote, and I prefer to have an election with 60 percent, 50 percent participation instead of neglecting the whole election process," Mr. El Rantawi said. "Having an election with 50 percent participants is much better than delaying the whole process and keeping this transitional government, this interim government, in power, because until now the question of legitimacy for this government is still open."

But Mr. Rantawi says he and many others in the Arab world are concerned that the election will be manipulated so that only political groups that are on good terms with the United States will win.

"This is the main challenge for the American administration - to accept the result of the election itself, not to design the election in order to exclude those trends [that have opposed it] and to form a new Iraqi parliament compatible with the American strategies in Iraq," Mr. El Rantawi said.

Mr. Rantawi says the problem the United States faces is that democracy in Iraq will not necessarily bring to power people who are committed to democracy.

Still, analysts say a number of outsiders are trying to influence the outcome, U.S. officials have expressed particular concern about such efforts by Iran.

U.S. and Iraqi officials say they are working to improve security, and they promise the election will be held on time, and will be free and fair. The U.N. involvement is intended to ensure that is true.

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