Electoral Tempest in Iraq

The biggest winners in the election are likely to be the Shi'ite religious parties, even more so now that the major Sunni organizations are boycotting the poll.

The Bush administration's vision of remaking Iraq as the Arab world's first pro-United States, Israel-friendly, free-market democracy has suffered many nasty reality storms over the past year. But the elections planned for January 30 are starting to look a lot like a tsunami forming on the horizon that will wash away all illusions.

Israelis, having lived the aftermath of "liberating" southern Lebanon's Shi'ites from the tyranny of Palestinian fedayeen, only to see them turn to Hezbollah to get rid of the "liberators," are likely to be less prone than many Americans to wishful thinking about the virtues of occupation. And Washington could certainly do with a little help from a friend in comprehending the problem. Official optimism over Iraq continues to radiate from the White House: Two weeks ago, President George Bush even awarded medals to two of the authors of some of the more egregious human errors of the Iraq shambles.

Grim realities are, nonetheless, unavoidable: The Mosul mess-tent bombing took December's U.S. troop casualty count to 67. November's had been 141, October's 67, and so on. Nine months into the second year of occupation, more than 770 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq. And their field commanders aren't confident in turning things around. Keeping 150,000 troops in Iraq (and a further 10,000 in Afghanistan) burns through $5 billion a month of a national budget already dangerously in the red. And President Bush's generals have now told him that the newly minted Iraqi forces won't be ready to lighten the U.S. load any time soon.

Although the generals offered Bush a soothing explanation - the Iraqi forces simply lack the unit-level commanders that make any army work - the political problem underlying the weakness of the Iraqi security forces is glaringly obvious to any outside observer: The new Iraqi forces are being assembled and trained by the Americans, and they are being deployed under U.S. command, usually in support of U.S. operations. Even to the extent that they're hypothetically accountable to the Iraqi interim government, the fact remains that this, too, is a creation of the Americans. And in countless interviews with Western journalists, Iraqi recruits have made clear that they have no intention of turning their guns on fellow Iraqis who have chosen to fight the United States.

Missing from official communications from the White House is the reality that the U.S. is not exactly well-loved in Iraq. Sure they can bring interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi before Congress to publicly thank the U.S. for toppling Saddam Hussein, but Allawi is an American appointee with long-time ties to the CIA, and the smart money says he'll be dumped by his own electorate on January 30 - if Iraq's election actually goes ahead.

The biggest winners in the election are likely to be the Shi'ite religious parties, even more so now that the major Sunni organizations are boycotting the poll. Grouped together (by the discreet intervention of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani) on a single slate, the United Iraqi Alliance, its leading elements are moderate Islamists who, while not demanding clerical rule, are nonetheless closer to Tehran than they are to Washington. Unlike the confrontational Muqtada al-Sadr, the more moderate elements assembled by Sistani have recognized that democratic elections offer the Shi'ite majority the opportunity to peacefully assume power, and they have counseled cooperation as the quickest and most effective means of getting the Americans to leave. But they have never left any doubt that this remains their objective. (Sistani himself has refused, since Saddam's fall, to even meet with any U.S. officials, so as to avoid being seen to bless the occupation.) Indeed, if there is a common nationalist vocabulary between Sunni and Shi'ite Iraqis, it is based on the rejection of U.S. tutelage and influence over a new Iraq and of a U.S. military presence there. A Gallup poll taken last April found that 80 percent of Iraqis wanted the U.S. forces to withdraw immediately after the January election. Even Allawi has promised that, if elected, he'll begin negotiating a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.

Of course, the current security situation makes talk of an election four weeks from now seem farfetched. But having committed to the election, the U.S. and its Iraqi protege may struggle to postpone the date regardless of the security situation or the political dangers of proceeding without the Sunnis - the Shi'ites simply wouldn't stand for further delays. Any attempt to forestall or dilute the power they mean to claim via the ballot box is unlikely to be passively accepted, and they have the numbers to mount an urban insurrection.

Whether it proceeds on time or not, the January election season seems to have marked the autumn of U.S. illusions about Iraq. Bush has begun tamping down American expectations, warning now that the election will simply mark the beginning of a long and difficult transition, rather than an endpoint. Indeed. But what he has not told his electorate is that, rather than engineering Washington's idea of a model society for the Arab world, it now looks increasingly like a salvage operation.

Tony Karon is the senior editor for TIME.com and writes a weekly column on international affairs. More articles by him can be found at www.time.com.tkaron@timeinc.net