Iraq's Resurgent Nationalism
Meanwhile, in other provinces nationalists and secular parties made big gains. In the north, Nineveh--its capital, Mosul, is Iraq's third-largest city--came under the near-total control of the Kurds following the 2005 vote. This time, as expected, a fierce Arab nationalist party, Al Hadba, scored a huge victory, reflecting the overwhelming Sunni Arab majority in Nineveh. In Anbar, where the Iraqi resistance began in Falluja and Ramadi five years ago, the Sunni fundamentalist Iraqi Islamic Party--which dominated the 2005 election there, in which a mere 2 percent of voters went to the polls--was massively outvoted by a combination of tribal, Awakening-linked parties and Saleh al-Mutlaq's secular party, which placed first. In Salahuddin, another Sunni-majority province, the IIP--which also dominated that province in 2005--won just 14 percent, with a combination of Allawi's and Mutlaq's secular parties and Awakening-linked parties winning more than half the vote. And in war-torn Diyala province, previously controlled by Shiites and Kurds, a broad coalition of Sunni-led parties, including the IIP and Allawi's party, made major gains.
Remarkably, the Sadrist movement managed to survive Maliki's all-out campaign against it. Although banned from running as a political party, the Sadrists created several independent electoral lists widely seen as Sadrist fronts. They made respectable showings in Baghdad and several southern provinces, including Maysan, Babil and Dhi Qar. "Don't count the Sadrists out, ever," says Hiltermann. "The Sadrist trend has an internal coherence that can't be underestimated." Having built its organizational apparatus mosque by mosque in secret during the Saddam era, the Sadrists aren't easily intimidated. "They're just lying low," says Hiltermann, who maintains close contact with Sadrist leaders in Iraq.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the election was the first-place finish by a secular party led by Yousef Majid al-Habboubi in Karbala, home to one of Iraq's two holiest Shiite shrines. Habboubi, a former Baathist who served as a top provincial official during Saddam's era, is a moderate, secular Shiite. Perhaps no other election result demonstrates how thoroughly Iraqi voters are disenchanted with the religious parties that have been ruling Iraq. In 2005, the United Iraqi Alliance was assembled under the guidance of Najaf's Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a bearded octogenarian born in Iran, who is revered by religious Shiites. But this year a popular slogan in the Shiite south was: "We've been fooled by the Marjaiya [the Najaf-based clergy]. We have elected amoral people!" ISCI, ignoring public sentiment, illegally made use of religious symbolism in its campaign materials, and it was crushed. ISCI's ties to Iran's ayatollahs worked against it, too, as thousands of text messages were sent out by unknown parties to Iraqi voters urging them to "stop Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs."
Just as Maliki adopted nationalist garb and built coalitions with secular tribal leaders, the Sunni fundamentalist IIP was forced to broaden its appeal in order to survive. It, too, now includes large numbers of less religious, less sectarian and more nationalist officials and voters. "It's a new political class that has been recruited into political parties and movements," says Parker of USIP. "Many of these guys are much more hard-core than the IIP. They're tougher, they're more anti-Iran and they're nationalists."
Iraq's ruling parties--ISCI, the two Kurdish parties and what's left of Maliki's Dawa--still control Parliament, and Maliki retains his power as prime minister. However, the rules of the game have changed. Despite his personal electoral gains in the provinces, Maliki is walking a tightrope at the national level. He's burned his bridges to ISCI and the Kurds by standing up in favor of a strong central government and by his heavy-handed campaign tactics against his former allies. The July 22 coalition--which includes Sunnis, secularists and Sadrists, each of whom have large voting blocs in Parliament--may try to topple Maliki in a vote of no confidence long before the next elections, and they may try to persuade Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani to jump ship and support them. (Those elections are set for December, but in January a key Maliki ally suggested that they might be postponed until at least March 2010, an indication that the prime minister is worried.)
To survive, Maliki is going to have to deliver the goods to the nationalists of the July 22 bloc, and that means supporting major changes in the Constitution and giving the nationalists tangible power in key institutions, including the army. "He has to get serious about constitutional reform and national reconciliation," says Visser. "It's good that Maliki is beginning to understand what the Iraqi people want, but there's a long way to go before he's seen as a truly nationalist figure."
The emergence of a nationalist movement is a direct challenge to the two countries with the greatest influence in Baghdad: the United States and Iran. Since 2003 Iran, which has accumulated vast power in Iraq, overt and covert, has been satisfied with a weak central government that is under the control of Shiite religious parties. If that begins to change--if the religious parties' influence falls, and if Iran sees the possibility of a strong regime in Baghdad--Tehran might decide to cause trouble, making use of ISCI's Badr Brigade or the so-called "special groups" that broke away from Sadr's Mahdi Army. That worries Iyad Allawi, who has re-emerged as a potential prime minister. "Maliki won't be able to fix things unless the whole political process is fixed," Allawi told The Nation. "And there will be an intervention by Iran to prevent that rebalancing of the political process. So there is the possibility of a lot of bloodshed." So far, Iran is placing its bets on longtime ally Maliki, who made a point of visiting Tehran right after the election. Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's foreign minister, then traveled to Baghdad, announcing that Iran will establish two more consulates, in Karbala and in two Kurdish cities.
For advocates of America's imperial project in Iraq, the re-emergence of Iraqi nationalism is both good and bad news. Good, because Iraqi nationalists are first and foremost anti-Iranian, and they will work hard to curtail Iran's interference. Bad, because precisely to the extent that democracy is allowed to flourish and that authentic Iraqis find their voices, the presence of US troops will not be tolerated. Having staked its fortunes since 2003 on a coalition (including ISCI, Dawa and the Kurds) that is also the most pro-Iranian, the United States is now going to have to accommodate an Iraqi political class that will blame Washington for the country's devastation and for propping up pro-Iranian separatists and religious extremists.
For President Obama, the handwriting is on the wall. If, on the advice of US military commanders, he attempts to prolong the occupation, he will run afoul of Iraq's newfound self-confidence. By the same token, the president can curry enormous favor in Iraq by accelerating withdrawal. Indeed, an early test of that proposition will come this summer, when Iraqis vote in a national referendum on whether to ratify the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, which allows US troops to stay in Iraq until the end of 2011. Washington can expect strong opposition from the nationalist movement, and the outcome of the referendum is uncertain. If voters reject the SOFA, Obama will have a deadline of twelve months to get all US forces out of Iraqi territory; if they vote in favor, they will do so only because the 2011 deadline seems plausible. In either case, they're not likely to look favorably upon any US effort to create a long-lasting military presence beyond that deadline.
That doesn't mean the immediate future is going to be peaceful. Obama is going to have to resist those who urge him, at the first sign of increased violence in Iraq, to slow down the withdrawal. He is going to have to work hard to get Iraq's neighbors, including Iran, to persuade their friends, allies and agents to avoid conflict. Obama will have to work with the UN, the Europeans, Russia and oil-hungry Asian powers such as China to kick-start a global effort to invest tens of billions in Iraqi reconstruction, allowing those countries to sign mutually beneficial deals with the Iraqi oil industry. And if violence does erupt, Obama is going to have to let the fever run its course.
The election results prove conclusively that a nationalist Sunni-Shiite cross-sectarian alliance, much of which has roots in the insurgency that followed the US invasion, is reaching for power. There's no stopping it. By prolonging the occupation, the United States is only standing in its way.