The U.S. push for elections in Iraq by January 31, 2005 is motivated not just by a desire to meet a prominent deadline on the post-war transition calendar. Many senior U.S. officials also see elections as a crucial palliative to the country’s chronic instability. Underlying this view is the belief that Iraq's Shiite and Kurdish communities are guaranteed to participate in the vote, and that the emerging government will therefore enjoy the support of at least 75 percent of the Iraqi population, giving it the broadest legitimacy of any administration in Iraq’s modern history and allowing it to make tough policy decisions. Moreover, Washington expects that Iraq’s two traditionally disenfranchised communities finally will enjoy political representation proportional to their population size.

However, U.S. logic is flawed. Rushing into elections on the basis of this view could actually exacerbate instability in Iraq, not reduce it. The most obvious problem is that U.S. officials continue to view Iraqi politics through the narrow prism of sectarianism and ethnicity. They remain wedded to the notion that Iraq is an amalgam of three basically monolithic communities—Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd—and that sectarianism and ethnicity will determine voting patterns. Washington's closest Iraqi allies, the former exile parties that dominated the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) and that now dominate the interim government, have pushed this view.

But U.S. officials rarely, if ever, question how representative these parties—and the agendas they espouse—really are. Opinion polls taken over the past year suggest that outside of the Kurdish north, where the two large Kurdish parties enjoy a broad following, only the Shiite Dawa party could claim a significant constituency. A recent poll conducted by the Iraqi Center for Research and Strategic Studies suggested that while Iraqis are generally supportive of elections, more than 40 percent of respondents believe that the absence of "real" political parties will impede the process.

Indeed, there is arguably a large plurality—if not a majority—of the Iraqi Arab electorate that remains secular and nationalist in political orientation and that opposes the sectarian and ethnic agendas of the large parties, but that has no effective public voice. Without political vehicles to represent the views of these Iraqis, there is a real danger that they will opt out of the election altogether—meaning that it may not be only Sunnis who abstain from the process.

This is a troubling scenario. For a newly elected government to enjoy genuine legitimacy, all Iraqis will need to feel that they have a stake in it. However, an election that appears simply to reinforce the dominance of the former IGC parties—which could happen if elections take place before new parties have time to organize and if Washington continues to engineer the success of its former IGC allies—would lead to the opposite effect. The boycott of August's Iraqi National Conference by nationalists and Islamist Sunnis offered a worrying precedent in this regard. Moreover, it suggested that these groups felt their agendas would be better served by seeking to derail what they regarded as an illegitimate transition rather than by using the process to pursue their political goals.

Even a boycott limited to Islamist Sunnis and nationalists would be dangerous. Some U.S. officials hold a misguided notion that the threat posed by these groups can be contained so long as the Shiite and Kurdish communities are on board with the transition process, and ultimately that the Sunni-nationalist rejectionists (and the insurgency) will be subsumed by the rising tide of democracy and by overwhelming U.S. military force. But this view misses the point: if long-term stability in Iraq is the goal, the political transition will need support from all of Iraq’s diverse constituencies. After all, the political success of the single-national-constituency proportional representation system—the system that the United Nations and the United States have chosen for Iraq—is founded on the expectation that all Iraq’s groups will vote.

More important, the elected transitional government’s main task is to write a permanent constitution that will define the political framework for a new Iraq and the rights of its people. If a significant portion of the population is alienated from the drafting process, it is unlikely to accept the eventual document as legitimate. Arguing that boycotting groups forfeit their role in the process and only have themselves to blame is of limited value. In practical terms, such exclusion dooms Iraq to continued violence and instability, especially if the boycott extends beyond the Sunni triangle.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's government and parts of the international community clearly recognize this danger, and are engaged in initiatives to win support for elections from Islamist Sunni and nationalist representatives. In many ways, the fate of the transition in Iraq—and the government’s ability to dampen the insurgency—rests on the success of these efforts. The greatest number of Iraqis need to be brought on board, even if this means delaying elections temporarily and reassessing policies such as de-Baathification and the disbanding of the army in order to do so. Otherwise, the elections will simply serve to heighten the sense of disenfranchisement that many Iraqis have felt since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, creating a dangerous thorn in the side of successive Iraqi administrations whose legitimacy they will contest.

Raad Alkadiri is Director of the Markets and Countries Group at PFC Energy in Washington, DC. He spent ten months in Baghdad as the Policy Adviser and Assistant Private Secretary to the United Kingdom Special Representatives to Iraq, Sir Jeremy Greenstock and David Richmond. The views expressed here are strictly his own.