The Iraqi vote may go better than we fear

What gives rise to hope is that Iraqi politicians have all looked over the edge of the cliff and seen the abyss

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Can Iraq become a democracy? Next weekend, we shall begin to find out. Iraqis will be able to vote for a 275-member National Assembly whose main task will be to draw up a new constitution for the country. The final results will be known in the middle of February.

Can Iraq become a democracy? Next weekend, we shall begin to find out. Iraqis will be able to vote for a 275-member National Assembly whose main task will be to draw up a new constitution for the country. The final results will be known in the middle of February.

It is not going to be an election of a familiar kind. There are no constituencies or voting districts, just party lists. Nor is it even known exactly who is standing. Some names have been withheld because of the fear of assassination. As a result, the election campaign has taken place mainly in television studios. Candidates have not had to be responsive to local opinion. But this may be inevitable when starting from scratch. After all, one of the Assembly's jobs is to decide how elections should normally be conducted.

Moreover, the lack of security means that actual polling stations will be identified only at the last minute. In addition, there is likely to be a curfew from 8pm to 6am, and cars will be prohibited from moving between the country's 18 provinces. The borders, too, will be sealed for three days. There will be very few, if any, observers. The foreign press corps will remain cooped up in the capital or embedded with American and British troops.

Nonetheless, we know roughly what is going to happen. In the Shia regions of the country where 60 per cent of the population lives, polling is likely to be heavy. All recent history shows that when people are offered the chance to exercise democratic rights for the first time, or after a long gap, or when the issues are important, they seize the moment with enthusiasm. Where the Kurds live, there will also be substantial participation.

It is in Baghdad and in the Sunni lands, home to 20 per cent of the population, where abstention is likely to be so high, on grounds of principle as well as of fear of retribution, that doubt may be cast upon the legitimacy of the whole election.

But I don't want to judge this beforehand. It is all too easy to argue that the election result, whatever it is, has already been undermined by the terrifying violence of recent months. Yet however cynical electors become about their representatives and the poor achievements of their governments, they still know that when they go to vote, power is in their hands. They understand what a precious moment this is. People generally rise to the occasion, as they have done recently in Ukraine. This is why I believe that when the Iraq results are published, those who have feared the worst may be pleasantly surprised.

At all events, the Assembly will get on with its objective of writing a new constitution that can be put to a referendum by 15 October. If it is approved, a new government will be chosen three months later. But one can put this another way round. The new constitution will either satisfy the Sunni minority that it can fully share in the country's opportunities or there will be civil war.

Last year, the main question was whether American and British forces could create and train an Iraqi army and police service that would re-establish security so that peaceful elections could be held. They failed. The election will take place in very daunting circumstances. Yet this year, the question is even more profound. Will the country hold together or break up into three unhappy regions with perpetual struggle between them and in the capital?

This ever-present threat of civil war is an extremely powerful pressure on the deliberations of the National Assembly. For civil war is more unpleasant than war between nations. The Greek civil war in the late 1940s, for instance, was more vicious than the preceding Nazi occupation. The partition of India and the creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh was a bloodier affair than anything that the British Raj had perpetrated in the subcontinent beforehand. Africa's civil wars of recent years have been lengthy, inhuman and ultimately pointless.

Moreover, an Iraq civil war, because it would place one version of Islam against another, would invite interference from its neighbours. Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey could be dragged into the contest, either directly or by proxy. Civil war would also make economic progress impossible. Who would invest in such circumstances? Iraq would remain what it has been since economic sanctions were first imposed some 10 years ago - a country rich in resources and people, denuded of wealth. It would be the Congo of the Middle East.

Now what gives rise to hope is that all Iraqi politicians have all looked over the edge of the cliff and seen the abyss - whether they have been members of the Shia majority or Kurds with a desire for substantial autonomy or rejectionist Sunnis. They understand the full horrors of civil war. That is why, again seizing hope out of the jaws of despair, I think one should expect a relatively good outcome for the constitutional work of the National Assembly.

I have forecast that next weekend's election will produce an Assembly with sufficient legitimacy to get to work on a new constitution. I have argued that this task will be done well enough to avoid Iraq splitting into two or three parts. If both these predictions are accurate, then a date can be set for the departure of American and British troops. They would, or should, leave in about 12 months' time.

It is almost certain that the new government overseeing the work of the National Assembly will ask the coalition to withdraw and open negotiations to set a timetable. The United Nations Security Council resolution passed unanimously in June 2004 authorises US and allied military forces to remain in the country until January 2006. Given a satisfactory conclusion to the work of the National Assembly, I don't see why that resolution shouldn't be observed to the letter.

But last week, Lord Boyce, the chief of defence staff at the time of the Iraq invasion, put a different argument. He told a newspaper that there could be a staged withdrawal as the Iraq security forces picked up. He said you could set targets and criteria rather than dates. It would be dangerous to set a single date because, come the day, you couldn't pull out as there would be a shambles.

I wish Lord Boyce would reconsider these words and see how patronising they are. They cast the coalition in the role of parents waiting to see whether they can trust their children to take responsibility for something or other. Instead, it may be that the nascent Iraqi army and police force are being attacked precisely because they appear to be coalition stooges. And so long as we remain, they will continue to be assaulted.

Indeed, we shouldn't wait to be asked. When the results of next Sunday's election are known, we should announce that, unless asked to go earlier, we would withdraw by 30 January, 2006. That very announcement would probably make the work of the National Assembly easier than it would otherwise have been. It would have taken away a major irritant and signified confidence.

From the British point of view, the whole Iraq episode would still rank as one of the worst foreign policy disasters of the past 200 years, but we would withdraw with a modicum of dignity, as we did from the Crimean War and from the Boer War.

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