Canadians playing key role in crucial election (TORONTO STAR) MITCH POTTER AMMAN, Jordan 01/29/05)
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AMMAN, Jordan—The Canadians on the ground say something marvellous is
happening in Iraq.
You may not see it just yet, not through the dust and debris of car
bombs. But they do. And the words they use to describe it are nothing
short of breathless.
"The big story just isn´t getting out. But it is really happening.
"Despite what you see on cable news, despite the bombs and the
beheadings, Iraqis are putting their lives on the line for this thing
called democracy. They have a thirst for it. They want it. And
they´re getting it."
But things are not quite so marvellous that the speaker will let us
tell you his name. Nor can we even identify the international team of
democracy specialists he leads, not without putting his life at risk.
Because they too are targets — targets arguably more vulnerable than
most, since these Canadians are among the very few Westerners living
in the real Baghdad, beyond the safety of the hermetically sealed
U.S.-controlled Green Zone.
Intimately familiar with the corridors of power in Ottawa, this
Harvard-trained mission leader — let us call him Bob — is not quite a
household name in Canada. But the cabinet ministers he has served
over the years certainly are.
Bob hardly needs the grief of life in Baghdad. But he has been there
since September, leading what his friends describe as "a suicide
mission" to ramp up the largest of the more than 90 international
organizations offering everyday Iraqis the basics of democracy. He
has seen a lot of misery in that time. But he has also shaken his
head in awe, watching time and again as Iraq´s fledgling democrats
marched with steely determination past body-strewn bomb sites to
reach his doors, craving a seat at seminars on how to build a party,
how to assemble a coalition, how to campaign, how to get your message
"More than 350 parties developed in a little over a year. Now, they
didn´t often know what they were doing, and often they were just one-
or two-man parties," said Bob.
"But right off the bat, you had a bunch of people starting to think
through what it means to be a democracy. That´s why I came. That´s
what drives us. We have an international staff sharing with Iraqis
the best practices from around the world. When you see them start to
get this thing, that is the payoff."
Canada may have given the war itself a wide berth, but our nation´s
fingerprints are all over this first brush with democracy. From the
secret conference in Ottawa, which last month mapped out
international oversight for tomorrow´s election, to the ballot boxes
themselves, the Maple Leaf will, in its own way, play midwife to what
will likely be a turning point for Iraq.
Whether it will be a turn for better or worse now is a question
Iraqis will decide. Stability and at least something approximating
freedom, though still a long way off, are within reach. But so too is
a descent into anarchy, civil war, perhaps even the end of Iraq as we
Even here in heavily guarded Amman, Canadians abound, from the
squadron of Elections Canada monitors to the spokesperson for the
International Mission for Iraqi Elections (IMIE). This man is a
household name to anyone who follows Canadian politics. But last
night, in an interview with the Toronto Star, he insisted we refer to
him only as "spokesman." He too fears for his life, and the
possibility that the reach of the growing Iraqi insurgency might
extend to his Jordanian hotel room.
"You can say my name when my plane lifts off the runway. Until then,
I´m the IMIE spokesman. Period," he said.
Such blanket anonymity makes one wonder what fresh hell awaits Iraq.
Chilling leaflets distributed in Baghdad warn potential voters the
streets will be awash with their blood. There is widespread fear also
that the telltale indelible ink to be daubed on each voter´s thumb to
prevent double balloting will attract revenge attacks in the
The interim Iraqi leadership, together with U.S.-led coalition
forces, has instigated draconian security measures to forestall any
such slaughter. The borders have been sealed; the airports are
closed; inter-provincial travel forbidden.
In Baghdad, Iraqis this week described how an unprecedented security
curtain drew down, replete with nightly curfews and a triple-
identification requirement for daytime movement. Last night, those
descriptions stopped cold when the Iraqna cellular telephone service
was aborted, yet another measure, one presumes, to silence the
Until the day comes, there is no telling how many among the estimated
14.2 million Iraqis eligible to vote will actually brave their way
into any of the 5,800 polling centres across the country. If the
numbers from yesterday´s first wave of expatriate Iraqi voting are
any indication, the prognosis might be grim. Barely a quarter of the
estimated 1.2 million eligible expat Iraqis bothered to register in
the 14 countries, including Canada, conducting external polls.
And what to make of the eyes of the world being here in Jordan,
rather than Iraq itself? The community of international monitors
encamped in Amman is the first to admit the scenario is less than
Canada´s Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley, who is
doubling as the head of the International Mission´s steering
committee, acknowledged the shortcoming in a statement from Amman.
"While the IMIE recognizes that it would be desirable to have larger
numbers of international observers at polling locations throughout
Iraq, we respect that the current context dictates that the priority
of security forces must be to safeguard Iraqi voters, candidates and
electoral staff rather than the additional burden of providing for
the security of hundreds or thousands of international observers,"
The world´s election experts will be depending on brave souls like
Bob to tell what he sees before they pronounce on the legitimacy of
this election. And they will depend even more on the estimated
200,000 trained Iraqi election workers and monitors who are scheduled
to deploy tomorrow morning.
At stake is an entirely new Iraqi government, starting with a 275-
seat Transitional National Assembly. Whoever assumes power will have
the crucial task of holding the country together as it goes about
writing a new constitution, carving in stone the political system for
the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
It may take a week, perhaps longer, for official results.
Once the winners are known, the first order of business is for the
new National Assembly to select Iraq´s new heads of state, including
a president, two deputies, a prime minister and a council of
ministers. Together, these positions will comprise the transitional
Everybody and his dog, it would appear, is running. A dizzying 111
different political entities — some 19,000 candidates in all — are on
But the field is led by large-bloc coalitions that reflect Iraq´s
sectarian and religious divisions.
Parties representing Shiite Muslim Arabs, who comprise an estimated
60 per cent of Iraqis, are expected to dominate, with a strong
showing anticipated also from Iraqi Kurds, whose main factions have
unified under a single ticket. The weakest links in the process
remain the reluctant voices of Sunni Islam, the embattled minority
from whence ousted dictator Saddam came, and the driving force behind
the rising insurgency. Many among this estimated 20 per cent minority
view the election as a threat that will codify the end of their 80-
year hegemony in Iraqi affairs.
Iraqis are aware an election is happening. Three weeks of almost non-
stop television advertising told them so. But many Iraqis are greatly
confused about the where, who and how of it all. The sheer abundance
of factions and the shroud of secrecy cloaking individual candidates,
many of whom have concealed their identity for fear of assassination,
make this first experiment in democracy especially daunting.
Iraqis are also struggling to understand the format of proportional
representation, which will allot seats to the winning slates in
accordance with their percentage of the popular vote. Other rules,
such as the requirement that every third candidate on each election
list be female, further complicate the ability of everyday Iraqis to
grasp what is happening.
Barring any catastrophic events tomorrow and in the weeks to follow,
most Middle East analysts say the new government is almost certain to
operate under the sway of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the popular
Shiite cleric who has repeatedly expressed a vision of a broad-based
government whose face will be secular, inclusive, and respectful of
minorities. Though he is not in the running, Sistani and his clerical
circle assembled the coalition known as the Shiite Unified Iraqi
Alliance, which is expected to fill half of the 275 seats in the new
National Assembly. They are likely to rule the new Iraq, in concert
with the Kurds, and possibly, the Iraqi National Accord, the party of
interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
"The way it is shaping up, we can anticipate a very large turnout of
Kurds and Shiites, and a very poor turnout of Sunnis. Basically, the
Kurds and Shiites are going to consider this government legitimate,
and the Sunnis won´t," said Haifa University political scientist
Amatzia Baram, who has made the study of Iraqi politics his life´s
"That is going to introduce an immediate crisis. Somehow the new
government is going to have to persuade Sunnis to jump on the
bandwagon. Either with a very big carrot or a very big stick, they
have to bring the Sunnis on board. If not, if the level of terrorism
continues at the rate it is going, there is a danger that the whole
state will be dismembered."
Few expect any immediate downturn in violence. Baram, in fact,
expects some degree of low-intensity insurgency to continue in Iraq
for as much as two generations to come.
Even Bob and his Canadians on the ground acknowledge the risk of a
slide into civil war. But they are looking at the glass as half-full,
hoping that any gaps in Sunni participation will be closed by swift
political accommodation on the part of Iraq´s emerging Shiite leaders.
"We´ve worked with a number of Sunni parties. We are cautiously
optimistic — very cautiously — that we might see 25 per cent of the
Sunnis voting," he said.
"Is that enough to validate the election? Well, the Shiite parties
realize if they don´t bring in the Sunnis in some way, this
experiment is not going to work."
"By this time next year, the insurgents will be looking at an Iraq
that has gone to the polls three different times and will be
thirsting for more," said Bob.
"Don´t forget, this is a country that has lived through a lifetime of
war and conflict. They really don´t want more bloodletting. They will
have their democracy. It might be different from any we´ve seen
before. But they can work that out for themselves." (Copyright 1996-
2005. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited. 01/29/05)
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