Reuters reports today that "U.S. and Iraqi officials believe most of the country is secure enough for elections except Baghdad and three mostly Sunni Arab provinces - Anbar, Ninevah and Salaheddin." Only four provinces out of eighteen -- sounds almost encouraging. However, these four regions contain more than 40% of the population of Iraq, including the majority of Iraqi Sunnis.
The election security in those parts of the country, from what's reported, could make polling stations resemble armed camps. A cordon of police at the polling places will be surrounded by a larger circle of Iraqi security forces, with U.S. forces rapid-reaction forces standing ready if needed. Voters will in effect be walking in the doors of military bases, and military targets. Reuters, not surprisingly, suggests that "insurgent attacks and intimidation may produce a disappointing turnout."
Any voters in these regions who do show up will likely be overwhelmingly Shia, despite the majority Sunni population. Attacks and intimidation aren't the only problem. The leading Sunni political parties have withdrawn from the elections, citing the security situation; and Sunni clerics are preaching the opposite message from their Shi'ite counterparts: stay away from the polls.
A New York Times article today cites some illuminating if unscientific numbers: in a survey of 50 to 60 Iraqis, mostly from Baghdad and adjacent regions, every Shi'ite interviewed said they planned to vote. Every Sunni except one said they'd stay away from the polls. Equally illuminating are the reasons cited for non-participation. It seems clear, for instance, that the extreme measures taken by the U.S. military to secure regions like Anbar and Salaheddin have also alienated many ordinary voters, and reinforced the image of a country under foreign occupation. Under these conditions, taking part in a U.S. sponsored election seems like voting for the enemy. The enthusiastic participation of the Shia population, on the other hand, must only reinforce Sunni fears of disenfranchisement. To say this is a self-fulfilling prophecy doesn't lessen its force.
The more realistic official voices, Iraqi and U.S., will admit the risks of keeping the January 30 date, but argue the costs of delay would be even worse. There are probably good arguments on both sides. What is certain is that, in many ways, the efforts to unite the country under a legitimate, democratically-elected government are also strengthening the forces that could tear it bloodily apart, once that election is over.