TOPICS : Growing doubts about Iraqi poll

Jim Lobe:

While the world’s attention has been focused for the past 10 days on the catastrophic tsunamis in South Asia and the subsequent relief efforts, the situation for the US and its dwindling number of allies in Iraq appears to have worsened. The Bush administration and its supporters continue to insist that elections to a constitutional assembly scheduled for Jan. 31 will turn the tide against the insurgency, even as key figures in Baghdad’s interim government, as well as outside analysts, are expressing growing doubts about whether the poll should even go ahead, given the deteriorating security situation.

Indeed, two weeks after a suicide bomber killed 18 US troops and contractors, as well as three Iraqi security personnel, at a military base in Mosul, the ambush and killing in broad daylight Tuesday of the governor of Baghdad, Ali Haidary, raised new questions about whether even senior officials could be adequately protected less than four weeks before the scheduled elections.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s interim president, Ghazi Yawar, who Bush himself had quoted just a week ago as being determined to proceed with the elections, expressed renewed doubts Tuesday, telling Reuters that it was a “tough call”. Yawar spoke a day after President Ayad Allawi himself telephoned Bush about what White House officials described as “impediments” to pulling off the elections given the prevailing insecurity and the growing likelihood that the Sunni population is unlikely to participate. Washington currently has 150,000 troops in Iraq. What’s worse, the insurgency, by virtually all accounts, is actually growing.

Robert Killebrew, a retired Army colonel and counter-insurgency specialist, whose theories will be featured next week at a forum at the influential neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute, argues that the only way to redress the situation is to increase Washington’s, as well as the Iraqi government’s, troop strength, close the borders with Iran and Syria, and threaten Iraq’s neighbours with retaliation if they provide support or safe haven to the insurgency. He also favours substantially expanding the US military as a signal of “national will”.

But to other counter-insurgency specialists who believe that the US might still snatch some modicum of victory from the jaws of defeat, increasing US forces and influence in Iraq at this point is likely to be counter-productive, if only because Washington’s actions have so thoroughly alienated so much of Iraq’s population. “The beginning of wisdom,” wrote James Dobbins, an analyst at the Rand Corporation who served as US special envoy in a host of hotspots from the Balkans to Afghanistan, in the latest ‘Foreign Affairs’ magazine, “is to recognise that the ongoing war in Iraq is not one that the US can win. According to Dobbins, the situation can still be saved “but only by moderate Iraqis and only if they concentrate their efforts on gaining the cooperation of neighbouring states.”

Anthony Cordesman, a highly regarded military expert on the Middle East at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also argues that eventual success will depend on Iraqis themselves taking control, mostly through the creation of “larger and more effective Iraqi forces as soon as possible” and far more effective governance than the interim regime has been capable of to date. — IPS