For the first time in six years, it’s possible to see the light at the end of the tunnel in Iraq. Despite all their flaws–and there were many–the January 31 elections in fourteen of Iraq’s eighteen provinces ratified the resurgence of secular nationalism. A large majority of voters repudiated the Shiite and Sunni religious parties and the Kurdish separatists. And in so doing, they broke free of the rigid confines of the ethno-sectarian politics that has dominated the Iraqi scene since 2003. The results mean that the Obama administration may soon have to deal with a vastly different cast of characters in Iraq–politicians less willing to tolerate a long-term US presence and firmly opposed to a special relationship between Baghdad and Washington.
Voters ousted unpopular governors and provincial councils controlled by the ruling US-backed alliance in a sweeping throw-the-bums-out election, raising the possibility of a fundamental reordering of politics. Though the elections were limited to the provinces, the results suggest that the national elections scheduled for December may usher in a government that will differ radically from the ruling alliance, many of whose leaders are or represent former exiles installed by US occupation authorities in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion.
Not that Iraq has suddenly become an oasis of democracy. Key political actors on all sides remain bolstered by paramilitary armies. Unemployment is vast, and basic services–electricity, water, trash collection, healthcare–are intermittent or nonexistent. The army and police are infiltrated by militias, and their loyalty is suspect. Baghdad is a bewildering maze of blast walls and sealed-off enclaves surrounding the fortress-like Green Zone, and the city is reeling from years of brutal ethnic cleansing. The provincial capitals are rife with intrigue, and many of them–Kirkuk, Mosul, Baquba and Basra, for instance–are perched at the brink of civil strife. And the elections themselves, in which millions of voters were disenfranchised, were deeply flawed.
But the results show that a new Iraq is struggling to emerge. The United Iraqi Alliance, the all-powerful bloc of Shiite religious parties, is dead and buried, and the key party within the alliance–the Iran-backed, clergy-based Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI)–was blown off the electoral map. Another component of the alliance, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party, has all but disappeared, while Maliki has morphed into a would-be nationalist, cloaking his fundamentalist sectarian leanings in the guise of a benevolent strongman. The nationalist Sunnis, having boycotted or been shut out of the political process since 2003, came roaring back in four northern provinces. In the process, Sunni-led nationalists, tribal parties, former Baathists and ex-military leaders, the Awakening movement (the anti-Al Qaeda, tribal-based militia movement that emerged in late 2006 in the Sunni heartland and formed a tactical alliance with the US Army) and various secular parties nearly obliterated the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), a branch of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which had opted to join the ruling Shiite-Kurdish alliance in the government. And the Kurds, who chose not to hold elections in their separatist region in Iraq’s north and who blocked a vote in the disputed Kirkuk region, suffered devastating losses in ethnically mixed border provinces where they’d wielded power until now. Separatists who supported the virtual partition of Iraq, such as ISCI and the Kurds, were resoundingly defeated.