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Canadians playing key role in crucial election (TORONTO STAR) MITCH POTTER AMMAN, Jordan 01/29/05)Source: http://www.thestar.com/NASApp/cs/ContentServer?pagename=thestar/Layout/Article_Type1&c=Article&cid=1106953822331&call_pageid=970599109774&col=Columnist1016110013469&DPL=IvsNDS%2f7ChAX&tacodalogin=yes TORONTO STAR TORONTO STAR Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
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 out.

"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 know it.

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 election´s aftermath.

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 insurgency.

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 ideal.

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," Kingsley said.

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 government.

Everybody and his dog, it would appear, is running. A dizzying 111 different political entities — some 19,000 candidates in all — are on the ballot.

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 work.

"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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