Iraqis head to the polls

U.S. and Iraqi forces face a tremendous challenge in the days ahead.

On Sunday, Iraqi citizens will vote in free and open elections. This is a huge step toward Iraqis having full contorl over Iraq. But these elections will not be as secure as we are used to in the United States – to say the least. This lack of security qualifies how “free and open” the elections are.

The New York Times reported violent insurgent groups have been distributing fliers warning people not to come within 500 feet of voting places. President George W. Bush said he thought some people would feel intimidated by these groups.

None of this bodes well. The army we sent was not enough in number, not given enough support in equipment, and it has proven harder to train Iraqi forces than we thought it would be. But this is the reality that currently exists.

Nonetheless, Iraqi and U.S. authorities were right to hold fast to the Jan. 30 date. There was no guarantee that security would improve in the near future, and it might have even worsened.

These will be dangerous and fundamentally important days for the young Iraqi security apparatus, and for U.S. forces, which will provide support while maintaining as low of a profile as possible. Hopefully, they will be up to the challenge and keep the elections as violence-free as possible.

In any case, keeping the transfer of responsibility for authority over Iraq back to Iraqis moving is the best way to stay on the path to a viable exit, which might be some time in the future.

There is one other problem that will not likely see a solution before Sunday’s voting: relations with Sunni Muslims. Sunnis, despite being a minority in Iraq, held most of the power under Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party. Many have said they see no reason to vote in elections that will be dominated by Shiite Muslims and Kurdish Iraqis. This will undercut the legitimacy of the results and cast a foreboding shadow on the prospects for a republican form of government in Iraq in the near future.

But the last 10 days have seen some of this tension ease. Shiite officials have said they want a secular government, and that top posts will not be filled with Shiite clerics. Sunnis have also said that while they intend to boycott the election, they want to participate in the postelection policy-making.

Sunday will be historic whatever happens. Hopefully, history will look back on it as the beginning of a democratic Iraq.