The New York Times
June 19, 2003
Iraqis Were Set to Vote, but U.S. Wielded a Veto
By DAVID ROHDE
NAJAF, Iraq, June 18 _ American marines had built makeshift wooden ballot boxes. An Army reserve unit from Green Bay, Wis., had conducted a voter registration drive. And Iraqi political candidates had blanketed the city with colorful fliers outlining their election platforms _ restore electricity, rehabilitate the old quarter, repave roads.
But last week, L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the American military occupation in Iraq, unilaterally canceled what American officials here said would have been the first such election in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Overruling the local American military commander, Mr. Bremer decreed that conditions in Najaf were not appropriate for an election.
Several days later, American marines stormed the offices of an obscure local political party here, arrested four members and jailed them for four days. The offense, the Americans said, was a violation of a new edict by Mr. Bremer that makes it illegal to incite violence against forces occupying Iraq.
Mohammed Abdul Hadi, an official in the party, the Supreme Council for the Liberation of Iraq, accused the United States of a double standard.
"Why do you apply these constraints on us in Iraq," he said, "and they are not being applied by the American government on Americans?"
The events here exposed an uncomfortable truth of the American occupation. For now, American officials are barring direct elections in Iraq and limiting free speech, two of the very ideals the United States has promised to Iraqis. American officials have said it may take up to two years for an elected Iraqi government to take over the country.
The events also exposed the tightrope Mr. Bremer is walking as he struggles to transform a society and help build a friendly and stable Iraqi government. Privately, American officials said they believed Iraq was not ready for elections, anIraqis Were Set to Vote, but U..ems d voting could inflame tensions.
"The most organized political groups in many areas are rejectionists, extremists and remnants of the Baathists," said a senior official in Mr. Bremer's office. "They have an advantage over the other groups."
But at the same time, the overt blocking of elections appears to be fueling anger of its own at the United States. In Najaf today, more than 1,000 people demonstrated against the cancellation of the elections.
Asad Sultan Abu Gilal, the man many people had expected to win the election, warned of violence.
"If they don't give us freedom, what will we do?" he said in an interview tonight as his supporters gathered around him. "We have patience, but not for a long time."
Just what an election in Najaf would have looked like is unclear. In other cities across Iraq, American military officials have supervised the selection of town councils by several dozen community leaders chosen by American officials. Those town councils have then selected mayors. What was unusual about Najaf was that voters would have chosen a mayor in an open general election.
How Mr. Gilal, the leading candidate for mayor, would have acted in office is also unclear.
Mr. Gilal, 51, a college-educated father of seven, is a member of a local family that traces its roots in Najaf back eight generations and is famed for its resistance to Mr. Hussein's government.
Dressed in a rumpled blue suit tonight, he gave off the folksy air of a man of the people.
He was the candidate of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, an opposition group with a long history of support from Iran, which some officials in Washington view suspiciously.
He said that American fears of Shiite fundamentalism are overblown and that the party supports the creation of a democracy in Iraq, not an Iranian-style theocracy. But on the outside of the party's offices where Mr. Gilal spoke, a poster invited people to a ceremony marking the anniversary of the death of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the cleric who created Iran's theocracy.
Fliers posted around town suggested that candidates would not stick to purely municipal issues. One candidate called for the rebuilding "educational life in private and public schools on a religious basis."
American military officials in Najaf appeared disappointed with Mr. Bremer's decision. Preparations for the vote were extensive. Lt. Col. Christopher Conlin, commander of the First Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment, went on local television and announced that elections would be held. On May 28, soldiers, marines and local teachers began registering voters at local schools. All 18 candidates were to get equal time to present themselves on local television.
Ballots would be taken to a central location and counted by American soldiers as Iraqi politicians observed. Roughly 250,000 to 300,000 of the area's roughly one million residents had been expected to take part.
"We were going to give them a building block," said Lt. Ron Winchester, a 24-year-old marine from Rockville Center, N.Y., who was involved in the registration effort.
But after a day of registration, the program was suspended. Several days later, Mr. Bremer's office indefinitely postponed the election. Maj. David Toth, a 42-year-old Army reservist and farmer from Baraboo, Wis., said he thought Najaf was ready.
The town was "stable," he said, referring to the lack of violence in the area. "We thought the people would be ready for it."
Original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/19/international/worldspecial/19NAJA.html
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