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Referendum is the perfect mechanism

Reader comment on item: Let Iraqis run Iraq

Submitted by John Hadjisky (United States), Oct 19, 2003 at 01:33

The trick will be to transfer control on a positive note, rather than under pressure. One model for this might be the unprompted withdrawal of virtually all US troops in Saudi Arabia not long after the fall of Baghdad. In the case of Iraq, if Saddam were captured or killed, and caches of WMD are discovered or documented to have been only recently destroyed, such an event might provide the context to transfer control and begin reducing troop levels on a positive note.

But we cannot count on these events. If the occupation comes to be defined as a contest between the US will to endure and the Iraqi will to see the end of the occupation, we have a formula that implicitly casts the US and Iraqi interests as fundamentally different, and a significant transfer of control would result in a loss of face for the US.

Happily, the data suggest our interests and the Iraqi people's are not necessarily at odds. One event that we can control is the timing and the content of a referendum. Why not take the initiative and propose a referendum now? Recent Gallup (Baghdad) and Zogby (nationwide) report frustration and only 4 out of 10 believe democracy can work for Iraq, but a majority are optimistic about the future and do not want an Islamist government; the largest plurality desired to imitate the US model of (Saudi Arabia came in second; the Baathist and Iranian models barely registered). In another poll (Gallup I think) something like 80% wanted the US to stay "for the time being" (I paraphrase). Perhaps most significantly, pollsters report that Iraqi enthusiasm for participating in the polls is quite high. While we hear repeated warnings that a premature election may favor Islamist parties that are presumed to be better organized and therefore more able to field candidates, a referendum speaks to issues rather than candidates and parties; general Iraqi enthusiasm reported by the pollsters, not to mention the novelty of a truly free election, should ensure enough participation to balance any advantage Islamist organizations might have in turning out the vote.

A referendum addressing questions such as the duration of the occupation or the amount of Iraqi control could prove a face saving and, if handled correctly, a face-enhancing measure. A referendum whose results favored anything other than immediate US withdrawal (a highly unlikely outcome if the polls are correct) would be (and would be seen to be) a positive outcome, enhancing US legitimacy AND Iraqi self-determination, while providing much needed milestones by which to judge the transition.

It is only a matter of time before domestic or international opponents to the Bush administration take up this cause. Bush should beat them to the punch.

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