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Operation: Ballot Storm

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By Farooq Sulehria

Ironically, exactly a year ago, in January 2004, 100,000 people were chanting this slogan on the Baghdad streets: 'Yes, yes to elections. No, no to selection'. Another 30,000 repeated this slogan on the streets of Basra. The elections were delayed in view of the forthcoming US presidential elections. Meanwhile, elections were hastened in Afghanistan despite Karzai's repeated requests for postponement -- again, in view of the forthcoming US presidential elections.

The managers running Bush's election campaign needed the Afghan elections as something to boast over -- an elected Karzai would be a good poster boy for their own election campaign. Iraq, they knew, would not offer any such poster image. Hence, the 'Yes, yes to elections' chants remained unheard in Washington. Or perhaps heard pre-emptively, if one goes by the views of the well known activist and writer Naomi Klein: "On Nov. 11, 2003, Paul Bremer, then chief U.S. envoy to Iraq, flew to Washington to meet with President George W. Bush. The two men were concerned that if they kept their promise to hold elections in Iraq within the coming months, the country would fall into the hands of insufficiently pro-American forces. That would defeat the purpose of the invasion, and it would threaten President Bush's re-election chances. During the course of the meeting, a revised plan was hatched: Elections would be delayed for more than one year and in the meantime, Iraq's first 'sovereign government' would be hand-picked by Washington. The plan would allow Mr. Bush to claim progress on the campaign trail, while keeping Iraq safely under U.S. control."

The forthcoming elections in Iraq will not mark a turning point for that country

The excuse used by Bremer to ignore the Iraqis' demands for election was, prevalent insecurity and absence of voter rolls. Few in Iraq or abroad were fooled by this logic. Iraq was safe enough to hold elections and the Saddam-era food-for-oil lists could be used as voter rolls. Now a year later, the country is more insecure compared to what it was a year ago. And the Saddam-era food-for-oil lists are going to be used as voter rolls -- because now Bush, having secured four more years, needs 'democracy'. No more Provisional Authorities or Governing Councils. It is because international agreements governing the occupying powers -- Hague regulations of 1907 and Geneva conventions of 1949 -- do not allow the 'Provisional Authorities' or 'Governing Councils' to act as auctioneers of Iraqi assets instead of the caretakers of these assets.

President Bush is least bothered to abide by the international conventions in this case, because foreign investors are getting nervous. And so, 'democracy' in Iraq is a democracy protected by U.S. troops. A democracy that will need American companies like Bechtel to run the water system, MCI to keep Iraqi phones ringing and Halliburton to dig oil out of wells. (Halliburton's Iraq contracts are now worth over $10 Billion, reports The election and democracy are thus legitimacy blankets to cover a dark scenario: physical occupation (150,000 foreign troops) and economic control (Bechtel, MCI, Halliburton).

And election on January 30, 2005, of a 237-member National Assembly will just be another step to prolong the puppet Allawi regime for another year. The National Assembly will serve as Iraq's legislature and will draft a new constitution. The constitution will be presented to the Iraqi electorate in a referendum scheduled for the fall of 2005. If everything goes in line with U.S. plans (so far, nothing has) the new elected government will be in place by end-2005. December 31 is the deadline.

The deadlines and targets set by Washington, however, are highly unlikely to be met, even though Bush's 'Operation Ballot Storm' draws sections of the Iraqi electorate to the polling booths on January 30 -- sections of voters will surely want to express an opinion in this way since it is the only governmental form available. This will be especially true about Shia Muslims who hope to establish Iraq's first-ever Shia government. The leading Shia cleric, Ali al-Sistani, is urging Iraq's Shi majority to participate in the elections. Tribal connections might pull more voters to polling stations despite threats by resistance groups.

The groups trying to prevent elections through guns will make a big mistake. A small boycott (as in Pakistan's 2002 presidential referendum) will be a victory against the U.S. occupation, but a forced boycott will not serve the purpose. To be effective, a boycott has to be a mass, voluntary action, not something enforced by a bunch of armed zealots. Anti-electoral violence will serve the U.S. occupation.

But a 'successful' election will in no way signify the defeat of the resistance. The Iraq elections, no matter how fair and free, will remain a farce. American imperialism specialises in framing such farcical elections, as in Vietnam and Latin America -- the list is too long. Vietnam is a good guide for Iraq resistance, at least in the case of these elections.

In Vietnam, the liberation forces pretty much ignored the elections. America sold each election farce in Vietnam that went by without giant attacks by the resistance, as a glorious act of defiance by the 'people' and hailed it as a 'decisive turning point'. The communist guerrillas exposed the farce in their propaganda and continued fighting, thus underlining the fact that no 'decisive turning point' had arrived.

The violent anti-electoral campaigns in Venezuela, in early 1960s, however aided US propaganda and divisive efforts, and this is what will happen in Iraq too. The elections will not be a 'decisive turning point' for Iraq. She will reach a turning point, like Vietnam, through Fallujahs. It will take one, two, three, many Fallujahs - or rather, a combination of Fallujahs and street mobilisations across the globe on March 20, 2005. The turning point will take time, but it will happen. March 20 is not too far away.

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