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Hopeful Signs in Iraq? | The Nation

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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

Hopeful Signs in Iraq?

Facts are scarce, and spin is everywhere, in the aftermath of Iraq's election on Sunday.

I'll be updating this entry later today and tomorrow as preliminary results from the election are announced.

Some initial thoughts: voter turnout was 62 percent, according to initial reports from Iraq. That's down from about 75 percent in the 2005 election. In Baghdad, the key province with 70 seats in parliament at stake, turnout was the lowest in Iraq, at 53 percent. It isn't clear, yet, if that total includes any or all of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who fled Baghdad during the sectarian purge of 2005-2007, mostly Sunni voters who either fled to Syria and Jordan or to safer provinces in western Iraq. According to initial reports, again, election officials at polling places were ill-equipped to handle displaced voters, meaning that many internally displaced persons didn't get to vote. If the election is close, and perhaps even if it isn't, the disputes over the votes of refugees and displaced persons will be bitter and explosive.

It's far too early to say anything about the results, though there is speculation that Prime Minister Maliki's State of Law party and the secular, cross-sectarian bloc led by former Prime Minister Allawi each did well. There are 325 seats to be allocated, and it's possible that both Maliki and Allawi got something in the range of 90 to 100 seats each. If so, then the best possible outcome of the election -- given the fragmentation of the vote -- would be a coalition between Maliki and Allawi. That's unlikely, however, since both Maliki and Allawi would insist on the top job. More likely is a repeat of the current ruling alliance, with Maliki and the rather weakened Shiite religious bloc, the Iraqi National Alliance, joining with the Kurds. But that grand alliance probably won't have much more than a bare majority, say, 170 to 180 seats, meaning that it will be a shaky government at best.

Of course, it will be many weeks, perhaps months, before the results are finally certified and the various blocs negotiate a deal to form a government. (Early results are expected this week, but official, certified results may not be in until April 1.)

It's also too early to evaluate the impact of the pre-election purge by Iran's friends in Iraq, including Ahmed Chalabi, who prevented hundreds of secular, nationalist, and anti-Iranian candidates from running for office. The clear intent of that effort was to force Maliki to adopt a fierce, anti-Baathist (and sectarian, anti-Sunni) stance, which partly succeeded, and to scare Shiite voters into stampeding into the arms of the Shiite religious bloc. Apparently, their effort failed, and if anything it spurred Sunni and pro-secular voters to go to the polls in greater numbers. But it remains to be seen if the pro-Iranian bloc, the INA, was routed, and if the secular parties, such as Allawi's and the party led by Interior Minister Bolani, another secular Shiite leader, did well in Iraq's Shiite heartland. In the provincial elections, in 2009, there were some major surprises, including a stunning victory by a secular, moderate ex-Baathist in Karbala, the very heart of Iraq's Shiite religious electorate.

The bottom line, of course, is that despite the hopeful straws in the wind, big chunks of Iraq are still unwilling to accept the results if it doesn't go their way. The battle line dividing Arabs and Kurds is still red hot, from the far northwest to Diyala province. The armed militias, including the Kurds' pesh merga, the Shiite-led Badr Brigade, Muqtada al-Sadr's ragtag force, and Iranian-backed Special Groups such as the League of the Righteous, are still capable of flexing their muscle. And among the Sunnis, the remnants of the Sons of Iraq, the ex-Awakening movement, are sullen and bitter, and it's not at all impossible that a new insurgency could develop (supported, no doubt, by Iraq's Arab neighbors), if enough Sunnis decide to resist the election results. While Iraqi politicians wheel and deal, expect them to rally forces on the street, too.

One good sign: the United States insists that its withdrawal, to 50,000 (from 96,000) by August, to be followed by a complete pullout by the end of 2011, is still on track.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE I
Tuesday
Iraq's High Electoral Commission says that it won't announce even preliminary results until Wednesday or Thursday. They'd planned originally to make that announcement today, after counting 30 percent of the ballots. They didn't explain the delay.

UPDATE II
Wednesday
Previously unreported, the same Iranian-linked commission, led by Chalabi, that purged 500 candidates in January purged another 55 candidates on election eve. Those candidates, of course, received votes on Sunday, since the ban on their candidacy's was made public too late to affect the ballots. Most of the candidates were members of Iyad Allawi's secular, cross-sectarian list. Says Allawi, according to the Washington Post:

"It will be a very violent reaction. A lot of violence will take place, and God knows how this will end. I will tell you there is already an existing feeling that there was widespread rigging and widespread intimidation."

UPDATE III
Wednesday
A UN official in Iraq now says that preliminary results of the election will not be announced until Thursday. Apparently, those results will include just 30 percent of the vote totals.

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