Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Iraqi election countdown - 11

Most newspapers lead today with the multiple car bombings in Baghdad, which killed a total of 26 according to the U.S. military. It's said that these attacks are part of "an intensified campaign of violence apparently meant to disrupt nationwide elections planned for Jan. 30", as the New York Times puts it. Time gets shorter, violence grows -- it's by now a familiar equation. But I've gotten a little impatient with this catchall explanation, which plays so conveniently to the skepticism and gloom of the media, on the one hand, and the self-righteousness of the White House on the other. No one's asked them, but you have to figure that the martyrs and mujahidin who are now blowing themselves, their countrymen, and heavily armed tourists to holy smithereens in so many ways, and in so many different parts of the country, are doing so for a quite a range of motives, not all of which fit into journalists' or Republicans' neat narratives.

Of course, disrupting election-related activities and scaring potential voters must be a big piece of the puzzle, but this doesn't explain what insurgents were doing back in September (when the rate of attacks came close to what it is now, roughly 80 a day) or help us predict what will certainly continue to happen in the weeks after January 30, whether the elections happen or not. This explanation also assumes that the majority of insurgents understand enough of what "elections" mean to have a clear sense what it means to disrupt them -- something one could reasonably doubt, if they're as informed on this subject as the majority of Iraqis (see previous post). The disruptions, in any case, are only a means to an end, an "end" where targets, my instincts tell me, have more to do with basic categories like "Shi'ite" or "Sunni" or "U.S. soldier" or "Iraqi collaborator with U.S. soldiers" than with the abstract goals of democratic institution building.

A more deeply alarming, if less dramatic, piece of election-related news (reported in today's New York Times) is the new American intelligence estimate claiming that "[t]he Iraqi government that emerges from elections on Jan. 30 will almost certainly ask the United States to set a specific timetable for withdrawing its troops." The report at the same time warns that "the elections will be followed by more violence, including an increased likelihood of clashes between Shiites and Sunnis, possibly even leading to civil war." Scary as it is to think of an Iraq full of U.S. soldiers who are a continuing provocation to terrorist violence, it's scarier to think of a still unstable Iraq without an American buffer, and nothing to keep opposing groups from each other's throats. But that seems to be what Iraqi leaders (at least Shi'ite leaders) want, and despite the American hems and haws reported in the same article, what the U.S. will have to accept -- with a secret sigh of relief in the White House, no doubt. (And after all, that will free up troops for an invasion of Iran. Second time's a charm...)

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