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Iraqi Election Analysis

January 31, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, some analysis from two experts who have been following political events in Iraq with us over the past two years. Adeed Dawisha is a professor of political science at Miami University of Ohio. Juan Cole is a professor of Middle East history at the University of Michigan.

Professor Dawisha, how would you describe what happened in Iraq yesterday?

ADEED DAWISHA: I think it was a great triumph, and I hope I’m not being too melodramatic about this. I had hoped that we will get a 40-45 percent turnout. I thought that would be very good.

We ended up certainly with a far higher percentage. And so just with the enthusiasm that people showed for this election gives the lie to the notion that over – that because of these long years of absolutist rule, the Iraqis have acquired this kind of passivity towards the electoral process. So I am very, very, very happy about that myself.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Cole, what words would you use to say what happened yesterday?

JUAN COLE: Well, this was a triumph of the Iraqi spirit. It’s often forgotten now that the Americans were initially very cautious about going to early elections because of their bad experiences in the Balkans. And initially the Americans were not enthusiastic about having one person, one vote elections.

This kind of election that we had where individuals are coming out in so many numbers in millions to vote really was pressed for by Iraqi political figures and religious figures, people like Grand Ayatollah Sistani, like Abdel Aziz Hakim, Ibrahim Joffrey others — many of them on the United Iraqi Alliance list. So this was something that the Iraqi people wanted, something that they pressed for and something that they carried off.

JIM LEHRER: So Professor Dawisha, what does that say about the state of mind of the Iraqi people that we didn’t know before?

ADEED DAWISHA: Well, you know, I have always thought that if we held elections or at least if we promised them elections, there was going to be a very positive response. You know, the fact that you live under absolute rule for 30 years does not mean that somehow you begin to be accustomed or adjusted to it. It says something about — and I agree with Professor Cole here — about the spirit. It’s not just of the Iraqis but I think of every, every human being.

The tendency and the proclivity to be free, to have a say in the running of your country, and no matter how long people who have the power to impose authoritarian rule over you, no matter how long this is going to be, once you give the people the chance to voice their opinions you find that they respond with a kind of positive response that we saw yesterday in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Cole, did you hear John Burns comments from Baghdad a while ago?

JUAN COLE: Yes, I did.

JIM LEHRER: What did you think about what he told Gwen that many of the voters that he and other reporters, they asked him whether you’re a Sunni or whether you’re a Shia or a Kurd and they say, wait a minute, what do you keep asking us this? I’m an Iraqi. Does that surprise you to get that kind of response?

JUAN COLE: Oh, no. This is… Iraqis generally will tell you off about this. The American political scene is overly-obsessed with this idea of the country being partitioned. There are no Iraqi political parties or figures of any importance who have called for any kind of partition. And Iraqis are very devoted to the idea of an Iraqi nation.

At the grassroots maybe some Kurds would like a great deal of autonomy and maybe even independence, but it’s a minority opinion I think in the country as a whole. On the other hand, this rhetoric of Iraqi unity and of us being all Iraqis together without regard to religious and ethnic difference is only a form of rhetoric. After all, if you look at their voting behavior, the Shiites largely voted for the Sistani list, the Sunni Arabs on the whole didn’t come out to vote, the Kurds voted for the Kurdish list. So the actual political behavior is sectional, but there is a sense of Iraqi nationhood.

JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that, Professor Dawisha?

ADEED DAWISHA: Well, I mean, I think that Iraqis over the last 80 years have been very comfortable in adopting what we call multiple identities. I mean, they don’t see any necessary contradiction by being a Shiite or by belonging to a specific tribe or by being a Christian and also an Iraqi. Actually I can also add beyond that a Muslim or even an Arab or a Kurd, so that throughout the last 80 years if you study the history of Iraq, you find that people are actually quite confident and comfortable with their… with the kind of various identities.

They seem to be able to in a sense shift or jump from one identity to the other. The problem here that we face now is that for the first time they’ve had a free election. I think this particular election, because it’s been the first election, you found that there was this kind of, you know, sub-state identities coming to the fore. Shiaism, Sunniism and so on and so forth, something that might be corrected in future elections and future referendums.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Cole, what do you think the effect of this election is going to be on the insurgency?

JUAN COLE: Jim, I don’t think it’s going to have a really big impact on the guerilla war. I think the people who are fighting that war are very determined. They would like to make the country unstable, kill the new political class, chase the Americans out and then make a coup. The people who want to do that think they know how to do it.

They have access to 250,000 tons of munitions. They’re well trained in military tactics and strategy. And they’re relentless. If anything, they will be alarmed that a new situation is coming to form and they will want to derail it as quickly as possible.

JIM LEHRER: So if anything there would be more violence triggered by this rather than less? Is that what you’re saying?

JUAN COLE: I think you’re just going to see a steady drum beat of violence coming from those people. I think this is in a way like the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s. Until that faction that’s rejectionist comes to terms with the new situation, finds a way to compromise, the violence will just go on. But I don’t think that insurgency can be successful. In the end I think it will die down.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about the insurgency? Go ahead, Professor Dawisha.

ADEED DAWISHA: I was just going to say we tend to talk a lot about the Sunnis boycotting the elections, rejecting the new political order. I think we have to kind of in our own minds create a distinction between the Sunni insurgents. These are the… either the Islamists or the remnants of Saddam’s regime, the Baathists and so on. These people are going to continue the insurgency. They’re going to continue to be the enemy of any new Iraq.

To be quite honest with you, the only way that you’re going to be able to overcome them is by defeating them completely. Yet, the bulk of the Sunni population is not part of the insurgency. Let’s not forget that they did not boycott the election. What they had been demanding is a delay in the election. They said simply because of the security situation in our part of the country, there’s no way we’re going to be able to get people to vote and therefore the only way we can do that is by having a delay of six months.

If you’re not going to give us those six months we’re going to boycott the elections right now, the January elections. These people actually, these Sunnis, can easily be brought into the political process and be part of the kind of the political development of Iraq. But the insurgents, there is no way but to defeat them.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Cole, do you agree that… because there’s been much said, Ambassador Negroponte said it as well. There’s been a lot said since the election yesterday that the Shia will try to bring the Sunnis in to the process.

Do you see hopeful signs of that and that it could in fact work along the lines that the professor just outlined? Forget the insurgency. You’re not going to bring them in. You can’t negotiate with them. You have to beat them up but you can bring in the Sunnis?

JUAN COLE: Well I think the Shiite political class is mature enough that it will certainly reach out to Sunni-Arab leaders. It will try to incorporate them into the new government and into the constitution drafting process. I fear I don’t think it will be enough to mollify a lot of the Sunni Arabs.

There is a real distinction to be made between the mainstream of the Sunni-Arab community and the more radical Islamists and Baathists of which Professor Dawisha speaks. However, recent opinion polling shows that 52 percent of Sunni-Arabs believe that it’s legitimate for the radicals to attack U.S. military personnel and installations and it’s impossible for this insurgency to continue to operate freely unless it has a certain degree of support from the general population.

So I think in places like Anbar Province I fear that the insurgency is still generally popular. Those people are unlikely soon to be drawn into the parliamentary process.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Dawisha, the U.S. role in this. Did you hear what John Burns said, that the voters there, they don’t even mention the U.S. unless the reporters brought it up. What does that tell you? You heard what he said.

ADEED DAWISHA: Well, I think John Burns own analysis was absolutely correct. I mean yesterday was an Iraqi day. The Iraqis went out to vote for an Iraqi government. They walked from their houses to the voting booths and all they could see around them were Iraqi soldiers protecting them. I saw a report in which one of the… one of the electronic media were asking… was asking somebody saying, what about this election that is happening under occupation?

And the man simply answered and said what occupation? I have not seen a single American so far. I have come from my house, voted, went back to my house and all I’ve seen is Iraqis. So in a sense, you can well understand that. This was an Iraqi day. They were very proud that it was the… they were voting. They were very proud that they were electing an Iraqi government and that they were protected by Iraqis. So the Americans were in a sense completely marginalized to this process. In a way that’s how it should be anyway.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Professor Cole?

JUAN COLE: Well, certainly it’s often forgotten the Iraqis have their own political parties which organize things. We couldn’t have had these elections except that the Iraqis organized the politics of it. Often cities like Basra are largely being controlled and run in a fairly efficient manner by these local Iraqi parties.

So the Americans did, from their point of view, did the Iraqis an enormous favor in removing from their political process the roadblocks that Saddam Hussein had set up with his authoritarian government. But once those roadblocks were removed the Iraqis didn’t need a lot of tutelage on how to run a political party or how to run a campaign. They were out there doing those things themselves so this was their day.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah, yeah. What about, Professor Dawisha, do you think, the question also that Margaret asked ambassador Negroponte about U.S. troops staying and how this… what happened in the election, how that may affect that and particularly public opinion in Iraq now?

ADEED DAWISHA: You know, there are two sides to this argument. I can well understand Ambassador Negroponte’s point that you don’t want to give a specific date for the removal of the coalition forces because if you meet that date and the insurgency is still going on and the Iraqi forces are not ready, then you’re going to basically deflate a lot of expectations.

You know, on the other hand, I think if one can think in terms not so much of a specific date but even what we would say a ballpark figure, I think that would in itself comfort a lot of people. There is an increasing perception that I hear over and over again in these interviews and I see in the press, that one of the reasons why the Americans don’t want to give a date is because they really want to stay there. I mean this conspiracy theory is pretty rampant in Iraq and of course more so in the Arab world.

And so if we simply go and say something like, we really want to go out. We think that the Iraqi forces would be trained maybe two years or two-and-a-half years and if that is the case, if we can meet that goal, then we will be going. I think that will allay a lot of the suspicion that you find increasing in Iraq and in the Arab world.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that, Professor Cole?

JUAN COLE: I think now after this election this Spring would be a good time to think about turning some provinces over to the Iraqis. I don’t think we need coalition troops in Basra Province to tell you the truth. I think that the new units that are being trained will be loyal to the elected government. So I think the time for a phased withdrawal may be coming.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Well, thank you both for tonight and for your help all the way through on this. We’ll be talking to you again, I’m sure.