On Sunday, March 7, Iraqi voters went to the polls to cast their vote in the country's second parliamentary election since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. The vote, which will determine the makeup of the government that will lead Iraq following the expected departure of U.S. forces, promised to provide a barometer of the country's political future and hope for stability. Although the vote was marred by violence, killing at least 38 people, voter participation was strong, with turnout estimated at 62 percent.
On Monday, Foreign Policy gathered by phone some of the leading journalists who had been reporting from across the country to hear their perspective. The Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran moderated a discussion with the New York Times' Anthony Shadid, the Wall Street Journal's Charles Levinson, and the Washington Post's Leila Fadel. These correspondents shared their opinions on everything from the surprisingly strong candidacy of former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi to the ever-present sectarian divide in the country and the effect of yesterday's events on the future of Iraq.
Election Day and the Sectarian Divide
Iraq's civil war, waged between its Sunni and Shiite populations, may be over, but the country's sectarian divisions are far from healed. In many cases, they have been simply transferred to political rivalries. In the most recent elections, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was poised to capture the majority of the Shiite vote, while former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite himself, appeared to be the favored candidate of Iraq's Sunni population. Our correspondents discussed the dynamics of the campaign and how sectarianism influences Iraq's political process.
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Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Let me say it's a real pleasure to have all of you here. Anthony, could you start off with a brief, top-level, assessment of what occurred on Sunday, and then we can drill into some more specific issues?
Anthony Shadid: I was out in Anbar, trying to get a read on where Sunni sentiments were headed. When you try to gauge the Sunni vote, I think often it is portrayed as [a narrative of how] Sunnis abandoned the insurgency and now have joined the political process -- but I can also see it as a quest of the Sunnis to find their voice in post-invasion Iraq. They first looked to the insurgency to shore up their presence on the Iraqi political landscape. There was the alliance, however uneasy, with the Americans, when the Sahwa movement came to maturity, and I think it was a very tactical choice about Ayad Allawi, as being able to counter the sway of religious Shiite parties.
The more time I spend in Iraq, the more it reminds me of Lebanon. There's this discourse out there of national unity and moving beyond ethnicity -- but there's a very entrenched ethnic system. I think there's a visceral sectarian and ethnic torment in this country. I think it's regrettable. I think people resent it at the same time they subscribe to it. I think people want to move beyond it, but they don't have the guarantees of their own security to do that in a decisive or forceful way.
Charles Levinson: I think Allawi will dominate the Sunni areas, and I think Maliki will do well in the Shiite south. I think it's going to be a question of how much Allawi can chip into Maliki's Shiite support in the south. Anecdotally in Baghdad, it was quite surprising that though [Allawi] had this whole campaign against him -- he's Baathist, the most prominent and popular Sunni officials in Iraq are all behind him -- in solidly Shiite areas in Baghdad, this guy had a very respectable presence, and there were definitely a number of people who were supporting him. In the Shiite areas, Maliki definitely had more support. But among the people we talked to, Allawi often had more support than the Iraqi National Alliance, which is pretty remarkable.
I think a lot of journalists have been a little burned on Allawi hype so many times in past elections, so he's been a little bit under the radar for most of the campaign. People were still prone to counting him out, but I think the dynamics are significantly different this time politically, as far as his prospects are concerned.
Leila Fadel: What I was struck by was that Iraqis were voting with their life on the line -- this is the moment that they can decide what kind of government they'll have when U.S. troops finally leave. I think most people were looking for more secular, someone who could be a nationalist.
What I found was that more people were looking for something new. When you looked at the parties themselves, you found that they were trying to introduce new candidates. If they were known as sectarian groups like the Iraqi National Alliance, they were trying to bring in Sunnis and Kurds -- something to say "we're nationalists now." So most people were talking about new faces and, even if they're voting for Allawi or Maliki, the one thing that everyone agreed was that they were voting for someone to bring security. There's been seven years of real tragedy here.