While publicly stressing the need for Iraqis to control their own destiny, the Bush administration is working behind the scenes to coax its closest Iraqi allies into a coalition that could dominate elections scheduled for January.
U.S. authorities in Washington and Iraqi politicians confirmed that top White House officials have told leaders of the six major parties that were on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council that it would be in the groups’ common interest to present a unified electoral slate.
The U.S. effort to influence the parliamentary elections is highly sensitive, coming at a time when President Bush daily expresses his desire to bring liberty and democracy to a nation that for decades has known only authoritarian rule. But the White House move stems from concerns that neighboring Iran is using its money and influence to try to sway the elections in its favor.
One U.S. official in Washington said the administration now believes Iraq needs a “negotiated resolution ... a scaled-back democratic process.”
Between the two conflicting key goals, “I see the arguments for stability now outweighing the calls for democracy,” said the official, who declined to be identified. The formation of a unified slate would further entrench the U.S.-allied parties, which are mostly led by longtime exiles with dubious popular support and are still viewed with suspicion by many Iraqi citizens.
The six parties are the Iraqi National Accord, led by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi; the Iraqi National Congress, led by former Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi; two Shiite Muslim religious parties, Dawa and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq; and two Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
U.S. officials hope that by fighting on a common slate in the January elections, the six parties will dominate at the expense of the dozens of independent parties that are expected to run. They also hope that the two Shiite parties will draw votes that might otherwise go to groups with closer links to Iran, an Islamic republic where Shiites also are the majority.
There are some wild cards, including radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, who launched several bloody anti-U.S. uprisings. Sadr, who is widely suspected of receiving Iranian assistance, has tentatively agreed to disarm his Al Mahdi militia, but has not said whether he will participate in elections.
U.S. authorities disagree on the extent of Iranian efforts to influence the elections, but senior officials remain concerned about pro-Iranian candidates.
The planned elections, hailed as a major step toward a new Iraq, are for a 275-member assembly that will write a new constitution. Voters will choose parties or alliances, not individuals, and the winners will be awarded seats based on the proportion of the vote they receive.
Electoral experts predict that to win a single parliamentary seat, a slate will need about 27,000 votes. With Iraq’s political landscape fractured among more than 100 parties, election specialists believe that even those independents that manage to gain a few seats may have little influence.
Some Iraqi politicians from other parties say that such a strong coalition would establish a new foreign-backed ruling class and short-circuit their hopes for a more open political environment.
“We’re afraid these parties will become six dictators,” said Jawat Obeidi, secretary-general of the independent Iraqi Democratic Congress. He predicted that most Iraqi voters would stay home if they suspected the process was producing no more than a “copy of the Governing Council.”
The U.S. gave members of the six parties top positions in the council, which was formed in July 2003. Those appointees moved smoothly into the ranks of the interim government when the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority transferred sovereignty in late June. Most of Allawi’s Cabinet members are in one of the six parties, whose loyalists control most Iraqi ministries and, according to critics, have increased their power through the distribution of patronage jobs.
In August, a national conference to choose an interim assembly turned into a demonstration of the major parties’ muscle as they joined forces behind a common slate of candidates. A group of independent parties and activists -- including Obeidi -- withdrew their slate in protest.
Efforts to reach White House officials for comment were unsuccessful, but other government authorities confirmed the Bush administration initiative.
Senior White House officials, they say, believe that the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution and the Dawa Party can give Iraq’s Shiite majority the representation it expects, while screening out candidates with uncomfortably close ties to Iran.
At the same time, some U.S. officials and outside experts acknowledge that the six parties have yet to win the respect of many Iraqis. Many view their members as outsiders who sat out the Saddam Hussein years in exile before returning with foreign backing to take control.
“The majority of the country feels that this is not their leadership,” said an official with a U.S. humanitarian group in Baghdad that works with independent political forces. “I hear it all the time. ‘What do they know about us? Have they suffered like us?’ ”
In September, a senior U.S. Embassy official in Baghdad said the top parties had paid little attention to building grass-roots support. “They have been more concerned with their comparative share of power than about any kind of outreach to the public,” said the official, who declined to be identified.
“Parties like to keep themselves in power, and especially in Iraq, where the parties that exist really don’t have very broad bases of support,” Kenneth M. Pollack, a former National Security Council staffer, said at a conference at the Brookings Institution this month. “They’re all looking to manipulate the current political system to allow them greater political control than they otherwise would if you simply threw things open in a completely fair and free election.”
The six parties are in negotiations on forming the slate. Officials differ on the likelihood of a coalition being forged, because it would require a power-sharing agreement that inevitably would leave some with less influence.
Hani Idrees, head of political affairs for Allawi’s Iraqi National Accord, said it was equally likely that more modest alliances would emerge -- such as between the two Shiite parties or his party with the two Kurdish parties.
“Of course, if the big parties ally, they would dominate,” Idrees said. “But I’m not saying there would be no space for the small parties.”
But representatives of two other parties involved said they believed the six groups would reach a deal. The U.S. official in Washington agreed.
Several rules for the upcoming election were written to give independents a chance.
Individual candidates can register themselves as a “political entity” by gathering 5,000 signatures and essentially present a party slate of one name. But the official at the U.S. humanitarian group predicted that the resources of the major parties would be too great for independents to seriously challenge.
“You’ll find people grabbing a seat here or a seat there,” he said, “but they’ll never have an impact.”
Even if the top six parties do not unite, many observers expect they will be able to use their superior organization and insider status to remain the dominant force in Iraqi politics. A Western diplomat in Baghdad said that organizers could accept a flawed election -- provided that the losers did not lose faith in the entire process.
“There are groups who will be left out. That’s what happens in elections,” he said. “The beauty is, they can learn from their mistakes and come back a year later and try again.”
Obeidi, of the Iraqi Democratic Congress, sounded willing face the difficulties and learn the political ropes, with an eye on eventually loosening the major parties’ grip on power.
“Yes, they’ll be terrible elections, and the next ones will be terrible too,” he said. “But one day they’ll improve.”
But Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, warned that disillusionment with party maneuvering could lead to yet another Iraqi governing body with limited popular legitimacy.
That dissatisfaction, he said, could become a destabilizing force if citizens got “the impression that those who are now in power will be in power until they die.”
Khalil reported from Baghdad and Richter from Washington.