Seven years after the US invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein’s government and pulverized the Iraqi state, voters will go to the polls on March 7 in an election that most Iraqis hope will continue their country’s uneven progress toward political stability. But a new crisis, provoked by an anti-Baathist purge in mid-January by Tehran’s allies in Iraq, has threatened to unravel Iraq’s fledgling democracy. At best, a backroom deal at the last minute could restore some semblance of normalcy to the election, but the purge has poisoned the atmosphere, perhaps fatally. At worst, the crisis could reignite the sectarian conflict that brought Iraq to the brink of all-out civil war in 2006.
"Do I think there could be a return to civil war?" asks Feisal al-Istrabadi, Iraq’s former UN ambassador. "I do."
The possibility of new violence in Iraq, coming on the eve of the withdrawal of tens of thousands of US troops by August, has alarmed the Obama administration. At the White House, at the US military’s Central Command and at the American Embassy in Baghdad, officials are worried. "Tony Blinken was off the charts," says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow and Iraq specialist at the Center for American Progress (CAP), referring to the top aide to Vice President Joseph Biden, who has taken charge of American policy in Iraq since last summer. Another insider, who recently visited Baghdad for talks with US military and diplomatic officials and who requested anonymity, says Gen. Ray Odierno and the military command think President Obama may have to reconsider the US withdrawal timetable. "People in the administration that I talk to say Iraq is way too important for the United States to allow it to implode," he says.
Just a year ago, it seemed as if Iraq was muddling through. The January 2009 provincial elections, widely seen as a dry run for this year’s more important vote to choose a new national government, boosted the fortunes of secular and nationalist parties and delivered what many analysts saw as a near knockout blow to the turbaned religious parties, especially the Iranian-backed Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which lost big. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, disguising his origins as a leader of the secretive Shiite Dawa Party, won strong support last year while campaigning as a born-again nationalist atop a new coalition that he called State of Law. After the provincial elections, Maliki even began to explore the possibility of an alliance with representatives of the mostly Sunni secular opposition, including Saleh al-Mutlaq, who leads the National Dialogue Front, and with nonsectarian politicians such as former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.