No matter what the spin from Time magazine’s “man of the year,” US President George W. Bush, or defense chief Donald Rumsfeld, there’s one overarching question facing the 83 entities – nine coalition lists, 47 political parties and 27 individuals, totaling more than 5,000 candidates – now competing for the 275 seats in Iraq’s interim parliament and that will be entitled to write the next Iraqi constitution. The absolute majority of Iraqis want the Americans out of their country as soon as possible. But how?

The United Iraqi Alliance – the Shi’ite, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani-supervised electoral list (228 candidates) – has a detailed, 23-point platform. According to its main negotiator, Hussein Shahristani, the platform insists on the “sovereignty, unity and Islamic identity” of Iraq, and most crucially includes a plan with a precise date for the end of the military occupation. Whether the Americans will accept the plan (neo-conservative dreams for the Middle East collapsing in the sand), or whether this will be enough to placate Sunni anger, no one yet knows. The powerful Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars is maintaining its boycott of the elections. But a few Sunni formations are running, such as the Islamic Party, an offspring of the Muslim Brotherhood (275 candidates); the independent democrats of former ambassador Adnan Pachachi (70 candidates); and the Democratic National Party of Nassir Chaderchi (12 candidates).

“Unity” for the moment is a chimera, even within Shi’ite ranks. With firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his movement, the Sadrists, off the electoral list, the question now is to what extent the Shi’ites will be able to monopolize the critical mass as the foremost channel of expression for the disenfranchised. The Sadrists won’t be part of the next elected, interim parliament. This means they will be free to constantly keep the Sistani-endorsed congressmen in check as far as their crucial point – kicking the Americans out – is concerned.

Asia Times Online sources in Baghdad confirm that moderate Iraqis – Sunni, Shi’ite, Kurds, Christians – fear above all the “Lebanization” of Iraq. The risk of post-election civil war is immense – as attested by the proliferation of mono-ethnic and mono-confessional electoral lists, or the recent bombings outside the holy Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala. Neo-Ba’athists active in the Sunni resistance will never accept a United Iraqi Alliance victory. So there’s a straight confluence between the strategy of the neo-Ba’athists and the radical Islamists of Tawhid wa Jihad, Jordanian-born extremist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s movement, helped by up to 2,000 Salafi jihadis from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Syria and Kuwait.

Washington will keep trying in the next few weeks to push Syria up against a wall – even if Damascus has nothing to do with Iraqi insurgents. Two Syrian clerics are being strictly monitored: Imam Abdul Aziz al-Khatib, from the al-Darwishiya Mosque in Damascus, and Imam Abu al-Daaqaa, of the Aleppo Mosque. Syria remains the main jihadi transit point into Iraq for two reasons: as long as one is a national from an Arab League country, it’s easy to get a temporary resident visa; and for the Syrians, it would be next to impossible to survey their long desert borders with Iraq in the midst of widespread corruption among border officials.

Washington’s accusations that Iran is interfering in Iraqi politics are also baseless. A Shi’ite-dominated Iraq will inevitably entertain good relations with Iran – but that does not mean it will be subordinated to Tehran, as Iraqi nationalism plays a much stronger role than confessionalism, the religious school one follows. There’s an insistent rumor in Baghdad about the only possibility for preventing a Shi’ite-dominated government in Iraq: it would be a coup d’etat concocted by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and his coterie of co-opted neo-Ba’athists, backed by the US military, who would then have to face Shi’ite guerrillas. The neo-cons, in this case, would have their pliable “Saddam without a mustache” – as Allawi has been referred to in Baghdad since he took power last June. But obviously this scenario, from Bush’s “spreading freedom” point of view, is out of the question.

January 30, 2005, the day slated for Iraqi elections to be held, could be the thunder and lightning announcing the start of the Iraqi Civil War. Or, as many Iraqis convey in their prayers to Allah, it could lead to an elected Shi’ite-dominated government – but Iraqi nationalist nevertheless – convincing moderate Sunnis that their political commitment to the end of the occupation is more effective than a guerrilla strategy.

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