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Plans for elections in Iraq suffered a major setback when a loose association of Sunni Muslim clerics called for a boycott of the January balloting. The threatened boycott was linked to military efforts to retake insurgent stronghold cities in Iraq's "Sunni Triangle." Analysts say retaking Fallujah and other hostile cities will mean nothing unless they can be made secure enough, for long enough, that residents feel safe in registering to vote and then actually voting. A boycott, if the idea takes hold, would make those goals a moot point in terms of holding credible elections.

To defeat both the insurgency and the boycott, the American-led coalition and Iraqi government need to root out the militant extremists who control such places and then convince residents of those cities that they have something significant to gain from electing a national assembly. But that's going to be a difficult case to make unless the coalition can restore some semblance of civil order once -- and if -- the insurgents are driven out.

According to Brookings Institution foreign policy expert Michael O'Hanlon, civilian combat casualties indeed are increasing not just because of random attacks by terrorists but in coalition airstrikes that cause "collateral damage" while pinpointing extremist targets. But most Iraqis are even more concerned by rising crime rates and the violence associated with criminal activity. Adding to the chaos, necessities such as electricity and cooking fuel are only back to about where they were under Saddam Hussein, a poor standard. Unemployment is slowly improving, but remains very high.

All those factors make recruitment easier for the extremists. And there is growing concern over a large and growing cohort of what has come to be known as "POIs" or, loosely rendered, "annoyed Iraqis," said Raad Alkadiri, an energy company executive and former aide to United Kingdom envoys in Iraq.

If they don't vote because they don't see life as improving, that voter apathy can be just as lethal to national rebuilding as any boycott.

That's because the Iraqi election is not a vote whose legitimacy can be measured by the overall turnout. The electoral system is based on "proportional representation" because of Iraq's ethnic and religious divisions, notes Kenneth Pollack, research director of Brookings' Saban Center for Middle East Policy. It needs strong turnout within each of those sectors, and a Sunni boycott would undercut the new government's legitimacy.

Simply holding elections is seen by many, with good reason, as a blow to the insurgents who are trying to block them. But there would be less cause to celebrate, from a rebuilding standpoint, if the turnout is poor or if any segment of the population is underrepresented in the voting. That's because the new national assembly to be elected has one main purpose -- to write a permanent constitution that must contain the compromises necessary to ensure equitable representation across those very divides.

There is wiggle room in the boycott call, because it calls on Iraqis to stay away from the polls if the American-led attacks against Iraqi cities continue. The problem is that, sooner or later, coalition forces must not only retake but clean out and hold those cities if the United States is to defeat the insurgency. And the military might needed to do that could cause enough ill will among the Sunni population to persuade them to opt out of the electoral process in large numbers.

It's a difficult balance. The underlying dynamics suggest the best way to win the long-term struggle is to confirm the remaining optimism of most Iraqis, convince them improvements are being made and the future will be much brighter, and at least make a start on an elected government. Ending the chaos means a heightened commitment of resources for stabilizing and improving Iraq's infrastructure and putting in the time and effort to train a competent Iraqi security force that can curb crime as well as terrorism.

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