Andrew Gilligan

Can Iraq make it?

The election brought joy to the streets of the Iraqi capital, says Andrew Gilligan. Everything now depends on whether the Americans are willing to hand real power to the people

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The election-night special on Iraqi TV, rather like the election itself, bore little resemblance to anything that British viewers might be familiar with. There were few candidates to interview (too scared), no counts to visit (too slow), and a merciful lack of macho electoral clichés. In Iraq, the terms ‘battleground seat,’ ‘war room’ and ‘political annihilation’ are not the concoctions of spin-doctors in suits trying to sound tough. They are all too horribly real.

The Iraqi Dimblebys might not have had any exit polls to talk about — would you want to stand outside a polling station all day with a clipboard in this country? — but they did have suicide-bomb polls. In the absence of actual results or a reliable turnout figure, the main measure of the elections’ success or failure so far has been the number of voters blown up. ‘A remarkably low tally of deaths in the central Baghdad area,’ said Al-Iraqiya’s Anthony King equivalent, thoughtfully, at one point during the coverage, as if talking about vote-switching of target C2 electors in key Home Counties swing seats.

The bravery and defiance of Iraq’s people, turning out to the polls in their millions, has inflicted damage on the credibility of the insurgents. The likes of Abu Musab al-Zarkawi promised streets running with blood, the beheading of voters and general all-round mayhem. Like so many politicians before them, they failed to deliver, and may be taken less seriously by the public in future.

The atmosphere in my part of Baghdad on election afternoon — once it became clear that the promised terrorist spectacular was suffering from signal problems in the Fallujah area — was the happiest and most relaxed I have known it in more than four years of travelling to this country. With all cars banned, I took my cue from the editor of this magazine and decided to hire a bike. It wasn’t quite Tour de France material, but then neither was the rider. Ten dollars to a 15-year-old kid, and his brother got me a large blue Raleigh sit-up-and-beg machine, circa 1950, with the ‘Made in Nottingham’ plate still visible on the frame, but without the luxury of brakes. My Iraqi assistant, Bashar, something of a boy racer, drew a smaller, flashier number spoiled only by a slightly girly basket on the front.

All around us as we pedalled, people were out on the streets showing each other the ink-marked index fingers they got when they voted. The birds revelled in the absence of traffic, flocking to feed in the central reservations. Boys talked to the American troops for the first time in months, and the Australian special forces grinned down from their embassy, the one which was suicide-bombed two weeks ago. It all made such a change from our normal existence: completely unable to show our faces on the streets for fear of kidnap, travelling to pre-arranged appointments in the backs of shabby local cars with tinted windows, looking constantly behind us for anyone following.

It has continued to be a bad week for the RPG-and-beard community. The normal booms of explosions you hear in Baghdad have dropped off substantially in the days since the election, and gunfire, too, is heard less often. Yesterday an insurgent group showed what it claimed was a video of a kidnapped US soldier, but the Americans said none of their men was missing and a spokesman for a US toy company said the figure depicted ‘bore a close resemblance’ to one of his firm’s best-selling military action dolls. If the terrorists have now been reduced to abducting children’s toys, things must indeed be getting difficult.

The almost desperate optimism of Tony Blair and George Bush about the elections turns out to have been shared, at least in part, by a substantial portion of people in an even more desperate situation: the Iraqis. Whenever I get back to Britain after visits to Iraq, I am asked how the inhabitants can survive. But as in so many other dreadful places, people here are more hopeful than they have a right to be, because their state is so precarious that it would be fatal to lose hope. Pessimism is a luxury that only the prosperous can afford.

Yet the rush by Washington and, more cautiously, London to appropriate the voters’ courage and claim ‘vindication’ for their own incredible incompetence is, at best, premature. The armoured media caravan may be moving on, but all the key facts of the story we are supposed to be reporting have yet to be revealed. We may have had the results of the suicide-bomb poll, but we haven’t had the results of the real one. Even the ‘better than expected’ turnout remains no more than a claim by the officials in charge of organising the election, and the 60 per cent figure no more than a guess by the election commission. At the time of writing, we still have no idea what the Sunni turnout was. No Western journalist has dared enter a hardline Sunni area, except under US embedding, for months. Our verdict on the election in central Iraq as a better than expected success rests, for the moment, on our own snapshot observations of a few middle-class Shia Baghdad suburbs and the untested attestations of officials with an interest in a successful outcome.

My own instinct is that the election did indeed go better than might have been expected; and there is the further, vital point that even if it did not, it is the perception among Iraqis that it did which counts. That perception gives the forces of stability and progress a vital breathing space, which must be seized if the hopes raised are not to be disappointed.

Because the other thing still to be decided is whether the elections will succeed in creating a broad-based government that can tackle the appalling, and worsening, problems which the country faces; problems which have not changed one jot in the last five days. For most Baghdadis, the electricity is off for four hours in every five, worse than it has ever been before. In a country with the world’s second-largest reserves of oil, it is usually necessary to spend at least one night in a petrol queue to fill up your tank. Many Iraqis carry blankets and pillows in their cars. The economy of Arab Iraq is in absolute ruins; almost nothing, apart from parts of the oil industry, is functioning. Most importantly, of course, the insurgents have not been defeated and they will not go away.

How the Americans play their hand is the final decisive issue. Will they meddle too heavy-handedly in the formation of the new government? Will they try to dilute the influence of the Iranian-linked Shia clerics whose party will win by far the biggest bloc of seats? The great worry is that the United States, both universally despised and for the moment indispensable, will be unable to resist trying to run the show — and the votes cast so enthusiastically this week will not translate into real power, which will continue to be held by Washington.

The insurgency is not doomed to succeed. Unlike, say, the Vietcong, Iraq’s insurgents are not fighting for a clear ideology, and they do not have significant backing from foreign states. But they can still prevent the other side from winning. And as a practical fact, the electoral law in place means that Sunni voters could still veto the new constitution which will be written this year. Ultimately, it may be necessary for the new government to negotiate with the insurgents, to bring them, too, into the hoped-for big tent. The question is: will the Americans allow the government to do this?

The apparent success, so far, of these elections means that they stand at least a chance of being a real ‘turning point,’ unlike so many of the phoney breakthroughs proclaimed almost monthly by Downing Street and the White House. But that same apparent success also means that if the elections fail to meet the high hopes of the Iraqi people, the backlash will be all the greater and the damage all the more permanent.

Dining at the only decent restaurant safe enough for journalists on Tuesday night, inside a heavily secured hotel compound, we were interrupted by the arrival of three carloads of men with flak jackets and Kalashnikovs. The interior minister’s brother, surrounded by his eight bodyguards, had come to have a quick drink at the bar. ‘If that’s the kind of security the brother needs, inside a compound already protected by 30 guards, what on earth must the interior minister be getting?’ murmured one of our number.

At least the interior minister’s brother is still in town. One of the less hopeful signs about the elections was that almost all the main candidates, Iyad Allawi included, chose to send their families out of the country. The interim Prime Minister’s wife remains safe at home in suburban Kingston upon Thames. If Mr Allawi really believes his bullish statements that the elections have put Iraq on the right road, perhaps his missus ought to be bought a plane ticket home.

Andrew Gilligan is defence and diplomatic editor of The Spectator, and is on the staff of the Evening Standard.