Don'tPanic!

Your war questions answered

How will the Iraqi election work and what will be the result?

Before I answer that, honesty requires me to inform you that I held a small presidential election betting pool among my friends in November. The prize was a 12-pack of beer. After reading a small mountain of published pre-election polls, I predicted a 311 to 227 Kerry Electoral College victory. I was not only wrong, but I finished dead last in my own damned betting pool. Keep that in mind as you ponder my election predictions.

On Jan. 30, Iraqis will vote in their country's first direct, multiparty election since 1953. Iraqis had plenty of free and fair elections during Saddam Hussein's reign. The only catch was that you had to freely and fairly vote for Saddam and his Baath Party henchmen. No such restrictions are in place this time. More than 100 parties are competing. The election will decide the makeup of a 275-person National Assembly and the governing councils of Iraq's 18 provinces. In addition, Iraqis who live in the semi-autonomous Kurdish-controlled part of northern Iraq will cast ballots for the 105-person Iraqi Kurdistan National Assembly. Ballots are being printed in Switzerland. That's partly to prevent counterfeiting and partly because Switzerland's famed Army knife engineers are thought to be the only people on earth with the technical ability to cram over 100 parties and 8,000 candidates onto a single national ballot.

Parties will get a number of seats in the National Assembly proportional to the number of votes they get in the election. If that sounds suspiciously European and parliamentary to you, rest assured that there's plenty of good old-fashioned, American-style democracy taking hold in Iraq. A recent poll shows that while two-thirds of Iraqis are looking forward to voting, 41 percent of Iraqis incorrectly think that this will be an election to pick a new president, and more than two-thirds of Iraqis had no idea that the National Assembly's primary job will be to draft Iraq's permanent constitution by Aug. 15. Is there anything more American than enthusiastically not knowing who and what you're voting for?

The efforts of public figures to sway the election with speeches and public service announcements is also reminiscent of American politics. Militant Sunni groups, along with their less militant enablers, are calling for a boycott of the election and threatening death to people who vote. Instead of "Vote or Die," it's "Vote and Die" — a political maneuver I like to call a reverse P. Diddy.

A certain Saudi-born cave dweller who we all know and hate is also calling for an election boycott. In a tape aired on al-Jazeera, he said that "anyone who takes part in this election consciously and willingly is an infidel," before concluding, "I'm Osama bin Laden, and I approved this ad."

When the votes are counted, expect to see a National Assembly divided along ethnic lines (Shi'ite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds) but under-representative of Iraq's Sunni Arabs because of the aforementioned "Vote and Die" campaign. The election's big winner will likely be the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shi'ite political party often abbreviated as SCIRI. Spoken aloud, SCIRI is an unfortunately appropriate name; it's a scary party, and its success will be scary for the country.

SCIRI is headed by a fella named Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. Like Iraq's supreme Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani (who supports SCIRI), al-Hakim spent most of the Saddam era in exile in Iran. Many Iraqis, particularly the Sunnis who supported Saddam and are now boycotting elections, worry that SCIRI is nothing but an arm of Iran's Shi'ite theocracy. The party's military wing even fought alongside the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war.

Even if he and his party are not the stooges of Iran that some fear they are (which they're probably not), they're still, as their name says, a party for Islamic revolution in Iraq. They want Islamic law for Iraq, implemented the Shi'ite way — something Iraq's Sunnis aren't gonna be too keen on. They're so un-keen on it, that many smart people are worried that this month's election will be remembered as nothing more than the first shot in a Sunni vs. Shi'ite Iraqi civil war.

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