The coming election in Iraq could decide the fate of the country's struggling democracy. The United States needs to take a stand.
Iraqis will vote at the end of this month in our first national-level election since the departure of American troops in 2011. On the heels of last year, the bloodiest we've experienced in recent memory, and facing the prospect of even more violence ahead of us, some have lost hope (though others remain convinced the impending elections will bring change). Some cynicism is understandable. After all, an opposition coalition won more votes than current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in our last parliamentary election four years ago, but Maliki held onto power regardless. Now, the tactics of suppression voters confront have intensified as violence between armed groups rages in two regions of Iraq, Anbar and Diyala. That bloodletting could easily envelop Baghdad. Millions of civilians are caught in the crossfire.
In his Feb. 18 op-ed in Foreign Policy, Maliki wrote that "al Qaeda understands the importance of our elections, and so should Iraqis and Americans." While I cannot say whether or not Americans grasp the significance of these elections, as one who has lived my whole life in Iraq (unlike Maliki and many of the Iraqi politicians whom Americans helped install after their 2003 invasion of my country), I can say with certainty that Iraqis fully appreciate the consequence that April 30 holds for us this year. Elections are the only vestige of hope the Americans left behind in Iraq.
The interference of outside powers is something we know well, so this is one reason the dramatic and ongoing events in Ukraine intrigue some Iraqis. After all, Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2004-2005 preceded our own historic 2005 election by just a few months. Just as Russia today plays an enormous and frightening role in determining Ukraine's future, so, too, do we increasingly feel the heavy breath of a powerful neighbor, Iran, in so many of the daily events of Iraq.
Since the American invasion, the international community has thought of Iraq in terms of three major groups: the Shiites, who share a sect of Islam with Iranians; the Kurds, who make no secret of their desire for greater autonomy; and the Sunnis, who are blamed by the current constitution for most of the sins of Iraq's history over the past half-century. This presumptive division of Iraq into different parts has helped to plant the seeds of sectarianism, which today fuel violence from multiple directions. Today, the Shiite parties control the power ministries and the central government, while the Sunni are fractured and, too often, labeled explicitly or implicitly as terrorists. This simplistic understanding of Iraq cedes too much power to the modern agents of sectarianism while giving short shrift to the idea of national unity, which the vast majority of Iraqis still share.
For more than a year, Iraqis have also been taking to the streets, compelled by the strong and growing belief that the sectarian policies of the current government have marginalized Sunnis to benefit the more extreme elements of Maliki's electoral base. Government jobs are given disproportionately to Shiites, especially in the security services. Meanwhile, many Sunnis have been unjustly subjected to "de-Baathification" procedures, labeled as terrorists, and imprisoned without the due process of law. That is why demonstrators took to the streets of Hawija early last year, and later set up protest camps in Anbar province (not unlike the camp on Kiev's main square).
Sunnis haven't been the only ones protesting: In 2011, angry, unemployed Shiite youth in the south and in Baghdad took to the streets to defy government corruption. But the Maliki government has responded by singling out Sunnis and treating the protesters as terrorists. This began in the town of Hawija, near Kirkuk, in April of last year, when the Army opened fire on a peaceful crowd of demonstrators, killing dozens, eight of whom were children. The protesters had 14 demands, all of which are linked to the equal protection of rights for Sunnis.
More recently, by moving the army into Anbar in western Iraq after prolonged protests in Falluja and Ramadi, Maliki, who as commander-in-chief of the military also serves as de facto minister of defense and minister of interior, has put the local population in the crosshairs. (In the photo above, Iraqi police officers in Ramadi show their hands, which are adorned with anti-al Qaeda slogans.) While he writes in FP that "we have refrained from ordering the army into Anbar's towns," he makes no mention of the shelling of these towns that destroyed the main hospital in Falluja, leaving thousands dead and almost 70,000 families displaced in the middle of winter. Despite his assertion that he is listening to voices like mine, which call for a ceasefire, the shelling continues.
Last month, the pro-Maliki news channel, AFAQ, repeatedly aired a "news story" that calls on Iraqis to respect the army and ignore voices like mine that call for reform. I asked political leaders in Washington to consider attaching conditions on their sale of Apache helicopters and Hellfire missiles to Maliki's military. Many Iraqis are rightfully concerned that these weapons will used against Maliki's perceived opponents and political rivals rather than al Qaeda. For this, Maliki's channel accuses me of treason.
Iraq wants and desperately needs a free and fair election. Yet there are a number of obstacles that make it hard for Sunnis in particular to reach the polls. In our last regional elections, many voters were turned away from voting stations by police who threatened them with arrest. Since then, security has deteriorated throughout the country. More than 400 candidates have been barred from the election on grounds that are widely seen as political.
This is an experience I know well. Before the last election in 2010, I was myself "de-Baathified" and struck from the ballot -- despite the fact I had been expelled from the Baath Party in 1977 for trying to defend Shiites during a show trial. I was cleared again only after the election, which is why I'm able to participate in government today. But the problem of selectively blocking candidates continues. The whole process has become so fraught that the entire Iraqi electoral commission threatened to resign last week unless they were given immunity. They were concerned they might later be held criminally liable for removing candidates from the electoral lists on grounds many believe are selectively political.
As an ominous beginning to the official election period, Hanan Fatlawi, a prominent member of Maliki's ruling party, made a statement on national TV: "If the Sunnis want equality, if they want balance, we'll give them equality and balance: one dead Sunni for every dead Shiite. How's that?" She was echoing the language of her prime minister, who responded to the lamentable recent murder of a well-respected journalist and professor by a Kurdish soldier by calling for "blood for blood." Such talk not only inflames passions, but it stokes further fear in the hearts of those who were already worried about whether they can safely vote. Such talk should stop, especially coming from those who control the army and the police, because in the semi-authoritarian state that Iraq has become, it can easily be understood by those with guns and authority as official state policy.
As an Anglo-American poet once wrote, "April is the cruelest month." The last decade has not been particularly kind to Iraq. My hope, and that of millions of Iraqis, is that our election will not be cruel, but free and fair. Rather than glossing over the serious problems in our country in an effort to clinch a third term, Maliki would serve Iraq better by removing the obstacles to fairness, equality, and the better future we were once promised.
Portraying a group of citizens as terrorists is a sectarian policy, and Washington needs to be more careful than it has been in recent years about accepting such characterizations as fact. The unconditional transfer of weapons to Maliki's security forces implies that the United States endorses his increasingly heavy-handed policies. But the most important message Washington can send (assuming, of course, that its powers-that-be care about the fate of Iraqi democracy), is that the outcome of this election is not pre-ordained. The streets with Baghdad are filled with rumors, fed by state-run television, that Washington has signed off on a third term for Maliki. The U.S. government would be wise to follow the lead of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest-ranking Shiite cleric in Iraq, who made a point of saying that he favors no candidate in this election.
April 30 could well be a tipping point for Iraq. If the will of the people is again denied -- as it was four years ago at Iran's insistence and without objection from the United States -- I fear civil war in Iraq will be inevitable. If millions see their ballots fail, bullets may become the only remaining option for those frustrated by democracy's failure.
AFP PHOTO/AZHAR SHALLAL