WASHINGTON—Iraqi voters have 111 political organizations to choose from Sunday in that country's first election since U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein 22 violent months ago, but the person with perhaps the most to win or lose isn't on the ballot: President Bush.
The balloting isn't just Iraq's first step toward democracy after decades of tyranny and a war that's cost thousands of Iraqis their lives. It's also as a referendum on Bush's Iraq policy and his belief that voting there will help launch a wave of democracy throughout the volatile Middle East, where clerics, dictators and monarchs have long ruled, often with heavy hands and sticky fingers.
The U.S.-led war in Iraq has cost more than 1,400 American lives and nearly $200 billion so far, and Bush's legacy—on foreign and domestic issues—hinges on his calculus being correct. If it isn't, even some supporters say, his attempt to shake up the Middle East could sink the region into more violence, further corruption and—in Iraq's case—civil war.
"Everything depends on Iraq," said William Kristol, the former chief of staff for Vice President Dan Quayle, the editor of The Weekly Standard and a conservative who has the ear of the White House. "The election could be a crucial moment where the Iraq policy, which has been touch-and-go, is vindicated."
The road to vindication is anything but smooth. Insurgents are trying to dissuade Iraqis from going to the nation's 5,220 polling centers through a dogged campaign of intimidation and deadly violence. Even Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said the insurgency won't go away after the election.
In addition, Iraq's Sunni Muslim population, which makes up about 20 percent of the nation's 15 million eligible voters, may heed the call of its clerics and boycott the election. The clerics contend that there's too much violence for their supporters to feel safe going to the polls.
A lack of Sunni participation could raise questions about the legitimacy of the election and produce a national assembly dominated by Shiite Muslims, whom the Sunnis ruled during Saddam's reign.
If Sunnis don't wind up with enough representatives in the government, support for the mostly Sunni-led insurgency could grow, and Iraq could dissolve into civil war, Brent Scowcroft, the first President Bush's national security adviser, has warned.
There's no agreement on how much Sunni participation is enough.
"Some will say the turnout was remarkable," said Sen. Richard Lugar R-Ind., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "Contrary to that, some will say, `Well, it wasn't across the board.' Some will say it is simply impossible to conceive that if people were killed on election day that this is a worthwhile enterprise, and it's almost inevitable with an insurgency determined to shoot people at the polls."
Fears that the election could produce a civil war with millions of refugees, fear of a Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and concerns about an Arab democratic outpost in the Middle East have put some of Iraq's neighbors on edge.
Kuwait, Jordan and Saudi Arabia—all U.S. allies ruled by Sunni Muslims monarchs—are worried about the implications of an Iraqi government run by Shiites with ties to Iran's Shiite Islamic Republic.
Jordan's King Abdullah II last month warned that Sunday's election could be the stepping stone to a "crescent" of Shiite power—a chunk of Shiite territory that runs through Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Abdullah and Jordanian officials have said the king's remark was taken out of context, that he was merely expressing concerns that outside interference, particularly from Iran, could hamper the Iraqi election.
"What we talked about concerning `a Shiite Crescent' has been given more weight than it should," Abdullah said in a recent Kuwaiti newspaper interview. "It was interpreted in a different way than our intentions."
Still, the comments reflect the nervousness of the region. "The Syrians, the Iranians and the Saudis all have an interest," said James Jay Carafano, a military and counterterrorism analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.
"They don't want a civil war bleeding into their countries. They don't want an overly powerful Iraq, either," he said. "They want a country friendly to them, even better, pliant to them."
The Bush administration, however, wants a vibrant Iraq, one strong and independent enough that the 150,000 U.S. troops there can someday go home. In that regard, Sunday's election is the first phase of a multi-tiered process toward democracy.
Once the assembly is elected, it will select a committee to draft a permanent constitution that'll set rules for new elections next year. It will also appoint a president and two vice presidents. The president will then appoint a prime minister.
On the campaign trail last year, Bush touted the election as evidence that his Iraq policy and his approach to the Middle East were working. Bush sounded like a man in full campaign mode recently as he repeatedly implored Iraqis to be brave and vote. He also talked about polling data, shattering a well-crafted myth that he doesn't put much stake in polls.
"Surveys show that the vast majority of people want to participate in democracy," Bush said during a White House news conference last Wednesday. "I urge people to vote. I urge people to defy these terrorists. ... They're afraid of a free society."
Analysts say Bush knows the election comes at a critical juncture in his presidency. Recent polls have shown Americans' patience with the war is thinning as the U.S. death count—now more than 1,425—rises and the federal deficit increases under the weight of the cost of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The deficit could get larger. The White House intends to ask Congress for an extra $80 billion in supplemental spending for the two wars, prompting Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to predict, "We'll have supplementals sort of like deficits, as far as the eye can see."
But Kristol said Bush is poised to build a legacy similar to former that of President Ronald Reagan, whose escalated military spending helped wreck the Soviet Union.
"This is that path," Kristol said of Bush's Iraq effort.
While almost everyone agrees that the election is a defining moment, some lawmakers, analysts and diplomats question whether it's the defining moment for Bush.
"This will be a defining moment in the history books because we like turning points," Carafano said. "But this won't be the turning point. President Bush doesn't control his legacy. The Iraqis control his legacy."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.