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Iraqis Demand Elections, Reject Caucuses

Rajiv Chandrasekaran

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The demonstrators converged on the provincial governor’s office on Sunday with banners, sleeping mats, cooking pots and a simple demand: Iskander Jawad Witwit should quit. After three days and nights of continuous protests, Witwit did just that. But the demonstrators have refused to budge.

As soon as Witwit resigned, the local representative of the U.USA. occupation authority appointed a former Iraqi air force officer as acting governor. To the protesters, that was unacceptable. The new governor, they insisted, should be chosen not by an American but by Iraqis - through an election.

Iraqis demonstrate in front of the provincial governor's office in Hillah, south of Baghdad, calling for a free election to choose a new governor.

Iraqis demonstrate in front of the provincial governor’s office in Hillah, south of Baghdad, calling for a free election to choose a new governor.

“Yes, yes for elections!” shouted the protesters, a collection of students, clerics and middle-aged professionals whose ranks swelled to more than 1,000 on Thursday. “No, no to appointment!”

The protesters have pledged to continue their sit-in outside the governor’s office - they have erected tents and dug latrines - until their demand is met. Leaders of Hilla’s largest labour unions have vowed to hold a general strike starting Saturday in support of elections.

Local leaders described the passionate but peaceful demonstration in this predominantly Shiite Muslim city as a preview of what U.USA. occupiers will face if they follow through with a plan to select a provisional Iraqi government through regional caucuses instead of general elections. Although elections have become an increasingly popular rallying cry in Shiite-dominated central and southern Iraq, the protest here is the first indication that mainstream Shiites are willing to take to the streets to press the issue, adding a volatile new element to the country’s impending political transition.

“It’s been peaceful in Hilla until now, but if the coalition forces keep refusing what the people want, it will become a big problem that they will not be able to control,” said Mohammed Kiflawi Abboud, chairman of the council that governs Hilla province. “Everyone will oppose the Americans.”
Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani lives and works in modest surroundings compared to Paul Bremer, but enjoys far more support from the Shiite Iraqi majority.
Protest leaders said they have been energized by recent statements from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shiite leader, calling for the provisional government to be elected. Sistani has rejected the Bush administration’s plan to select a national assembly through caucuses in each of the country’s 18 provinces, saying it does not give Iraqis enough of a role in the transition.

While Sistani does not appear to have weighed in on the subject of Witwit’s replacement, his pronouncements on the overall political transition have been interpreted in Hilla as a license to engage in civil disobedience.

“Ayatollah Sistani has called for elections,” said Hussein Abdelrazzak Mehdi, a high school teacher and seminary student who was one of the protest organizers. “We want to ensure his words are followed.”

Since Sistani voiced his opposition to the American transition plan, members of Iraq’s U.USA.-appointed Governing Council have been considering ways to amend the caucus system.

Over the past two weeks, other Shiite leaders and even several influential Sunni Muslims - a rival minority that had long ruled Iraq - have urged the Governing Council to call for elections. But the council has been reluctant to do so, largely because of pressure from the Bush administration and because members believe caucuses are the best way to protect their own political interests. Some members even want the council, which U.USA. officials are seeking to dissolve on June 30, to remain as a second legislative body in the provisional government.

Hoping to find a middle ground that will protect the interests of the council and the Bush administration while still appeasing Shiites, several members are advocating another round of caucuses to reconstitute some local and provincial councils. “We recognize there are problems with some of the local councils, and we think some limited elections can address this issue,” one council member said.

But if Hilla, a city of about 500,000 people about 60 miles south of Baghdad, is any indication, that approach will not fly. People here, from professors to roadside vendors, say elections are the only legitimate way to choose their governor and a provisional government.
The USA refuses to allow Iraqis the freedom to elect a new government, because it could not control the outcome.
“President George Bush promised us democracy” said Kadhim Abbas, the owner of a carpet factory, who brought three dozen employees - women in head-to-toe black veils - to the protest. “How can you have democracy without elections?”

Although they would have significant influence over the process, many members of Hilla’s provincial council also said they objected to the caucuses, raising doubts about whether the Americans will be able to find willing local partners to back their transition plan. “We don’t want to participate,” said Bassim Jalal Ibrahim, the council’s deputy chairman. “We regard the caucuses as illegitimate.”

Ibrahim said the council favours holding elections to select a new governor and to pick representatives for the transitional assembly. “I can’t understand why the Americans don’t want elections,” he said. “We deserve to have them.”

The Bush administration has resisted elections, contending that the absence of voter rolls and an electoral law would make a nationwide ballot time-consuming. Officials also argue that a hasty election would be vulnerable to violence and manipulation by religious militants and loyalists of former president Saddam Hussein.

Ibrahim and other members of the Hilla council insist a national database that is used to distribute monthly food rations could serve as a voter roll, enabling occupation authorities to hold a quick ballot. “It would be very easy to hold elections,” said Hamid Ibrahim Awadi, a lawyer and council member. “We could do it right away.”

The 22-member provincial council, comprising representatives from professional associations and community organizations, is only an advisory body. Power over the police and other government institutions rests with the governor, who rules at the behest of the occupation authority.

A day before Witwit resigned, a commission purging Baath Party members from government ordered his dismissal. Council members said they discovered documents linking him to Hussein’s intelligence service. He also had been criticized for appointing two of his brothers and several other relatives to top posts in the provincial government.

His replacement, Emad Lefteh, insisted there would be no way to hold elections right away. Sitting behind the governor’s desk with aides at his side, he said the occupation authority “should not bend to a few people protesting outside. f we have elections now, our enemies, the terrorists and the extremists, will take advantage of the situation.”

An official with the occupation authority in Hilla said Lefteh had proven himself to be an effective administrator in his previous job as mayor of Hilla. “That’s what this province needs,” the official said. The official ruled out holding elections. “I’m not going to compromise on security, and we do not respond to mobs,” the official said.

As the afternoon wore on, the protesters prayed, ate lunch out of large metal vats and brought in an interpreter. Using a megaphone, he addressed a dozen American and Polish soldiers standing guard on the roof of the governor’s office.

“Coalition forces, don’t be worried,” he said in English. “We are here in peace. All we want is democracy.”

“That’s what they promised us,” Jabbar Zaid, a university student, said after the interpreter finished. “All we want is what they promised.”

Published Saturday, December 13th, 2003 - 12:16pm GMT

Article courtesy of the Washington Post

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