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Iraq's Moment of Truth

I've just published a short piece over at the Review section of the National about where we stand in the Iraqi elections.   It begins:

The final results of Iraq’s elections are yet to be released, but with 95 per cent of the votes counted, it is clear that the contest is a dead heat between the two leading parties – the State of Law list headed by Nouri al Maliki, Iraq’s current prime minister, and the Al Iraqiya list headed by former prime minister Iyad Allawi.

The eventual winner will have the first shot at forming a coalition government, but these negotiations are widely expected to take several weeks, and Iraq’s next government is unlikely to be seated before May. While there is still a real risk that allegations of fraud, or a prolonged electoral deadlock, could trigger contentious or violent protests, the vote in Iraq can still avoid the ignominious fate of recent “decisive elections” in the region, like those in Afghanistan and Iran.

Contrary to the persistent worries of outside observers, Iraq is not unravelling. Indeed, the results suggest that Iraqi nationalism is becoming a more potent force than sectarianism and that most voters have no trouble accepting a strong central government. Both of the leading lists – al Maliki’s Shiite-dominated “party of state” and Allawi’s avowedly nonsectarian alliance – claimed to represent Iraqi nationalism, and both potential prime ministers have reputations for the forceful exercise of state power.

Meanwhile, lists identified with sectarian, Iranian or American interests fared poorly....  And a number of leading members of the post-2003 ruling elite were undone by the open-list voting system, which allowed Iraqis to select their preferred candidates from among each electoral list rather than accepting the rankings carefully negotiated in advance by party leaders. 

I look at the impact of the deBaathification fiasco, and at the rise of Allawi's al-Iraqiya list, and then at what may come:

The moment of truth for Iraq will come if Allawi edges out al Maliki, or if the latter wins a narrow victory but cannot assemble a governing coalition due to the considerable animosity he has generated among his political rivals. Will he peacefully accept the rotation of power? Iraqis and outside analysts have watched nervously over the last few years as the prime minister centralised power within his office. His warning, pointedly issued as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, that an “illegitimate” electoral result could result in violence further frayed nerves – leading one Saudi newspaper to describe him as “Iraq’s Ahmadinejad”.

Iraq therefore faces a double-edged test after the elections. If al Maliki triumphs in a narrow election and assembles a coalition that largely reproduces the outgoing government, many Iraqis may feel that the election was a sham, and that democracy is not capable of producing true change. If al Maliki loses, he may not surrender power without a fight – and many of his backers may reject the prospect of being ruled by Allawi, who drew so heavily on Sunni votes.

Finally, I consider what it means for U.S. policy:

For the United States, which still has over 90,000 troops in the country, the elections have been set up as a crucial turning point before the large scale withdrawal of forces can begin. But the electoral experience has only highlighted the essential irrelevance of the United States to unfolding events. The American military presence provided Washington little influence over Iraq’s turbulent politics. The dozens of lists and parties competing for seats in the Iraqi parliament spent much of the campaign competing with one another to be the loudest advocates of Iraqi nationalism and sovereignty. When American officials tentatively intervened in the de-Baathification fiasco, Iraqi politicians turned America’s carefully modulated complaints into political dynamite, rushing to loudly denounce foreign interference in Iraqi affairs. It was not an edifying sight to see leading Iraqi politicians declaring General David Petraeus a “Baathist” and General Raymond Odierno, the commander of US forces, openly accusing them in turn of being Iranian pawns.

The United States structured its drawdown in order to keep the maximum number of troops in Iraq until after the elections – a schedule touted as a necessity to provide security. But American troops largely stayed out of the way as Iraqis went to the polls: Iraqi security forces and election officials took the lead. The US army’s main role was, and remains, as a security blanket – available to restore the peace as a last resort, or perhaps to stand guard against a possible coup or enforce a peaceful transfer of power if al Maliki refuses to leave office.

American analysts, who have a difficult time imagining an Iraq without a large-scale US military presence, are anxiously scanning the political landscape in search of a reason why the United States cannot possibly withdraw its troops. But they miss the wider picture of an Iraqi public which no longer wants or needs their supposedly stabilising role. Whatever the private feelings of Iraqi leaders – many of whom may well fear for their political obsolescence, if not their physical safety, after American troops depart – the electoral campaign has made clear the strong nationalist current in Iraqi politics. No request for an extension of the US presence or a renegotiation of the agreement dictating troops depart by the end of 2012 is likely to be forthcoming.

There's more --- read it all over at the National

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