Iraqis Back in Charge?

The votes are not officially tabulated yet, and it will take a while for the implications [.pdf] of the recent provincial elections in Iraq to become apparent. But it is not too early to take note that they were conducted almost entirely by the Iraqis themselves, under Iraqi rather than American direct supervision, and that they were carried out almost completely peacefully. Though some charges of ballot fraud have been registered, the elections seem to have at least met the standards of Chicago or Louisiana for honesty. While the neocon fantasy of a model democracy the rest of the Middle East will rush to emulate is unlikely to emerge anytime soon, it is nonetheless a moderately hopeful omen.

While there may already be efforts under way to deter President Obama from his stated decision to begin U.S. troop withdrawals promptly and complete them within 16 months, the elections offer no substantial reason for delay. If anything, the outcome is reason to make sure the process of giving Iraq back to Iraqis is not delayed unduly.

Results from these provincial elections, a prelude and perhaps precursor to national elections likely to happen later this year, are still somewhat preliminary, and, as Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, emphasized when I talked to him last week, they were leaked by various parties with an interest in spinning perceptions. But if the reported trends hold, it appears that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Dawa Party have performed better than most had expected, not only in Baghdad but in Shia-dominated southern Iraq, and especially in Basra.

The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which is more overtly religious than Dawa and has closer ties to Iran, had floated the notion of a semi-autonomous southern region, but that idea didn’t seem to get as much traction as some had expected.

Another surprise is a comeback by Iyad Allawi, the first prime minister after the Coalition Provisional Authority, who is somewhat more secular than Maliki. Allawi saw his supporters gain more seats than had been expected. This is generally seen as a sign that at least a fair number of Iraqis prefer a secular regime to a religious one. They also appear to favor a relatively strong central government to keep Iraq together as a nation instead of splitting it into three states (de jure or de facto), as some (including me at various times, as well as Joe Biden) have argued might be the least disruptive way for those who live in that region to live with minimal conflict.

Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me that if the preliminary trends hold, this might well demonstrate little more than the power of incumbency, "the oldest story in the Arab world," which could have benefited Maliki and to a lesser extent Allawi. She thought that Maliki might also have done so well in the southern port city of Basra in part because voters there turned out to be grateful for the controversial decision by Maliki to send national troops to Basra to break the hold of Shia militias, which had ruled the city and its outskirts by a ruthless and rather arbitrary application of Sharia law.

Ottaway is not quite ready to say that the results indicate a real resurgence of nonsectarian nationalism. While the Shi’ites and Sunnis were divided into several factions and parties – some 14,500 candidates ran for only 440 provincial council seats – most Iraqis still didn’t cross sectarian lines to support candidates. Sunnis generally voted for one of the Sunni parties, and Shi’ites did likewise. Rather than voting for a strong central government, then, the Shi’ites may have simply been voting to make sure that whatever government of whatever strength emerged, it would be dominated by Shi’ites. Given that the Shi’ites were persecuted when Saddam ran the country with his Sunni Tikriti henchmen, this is hardly surprising.

There were trouble spots that could lead to violence. In Anbar province, where the "Anbar Awakening" changed sides, took U.S. money, and subdued al-Qaeda in Iraq, making the U.S. "surge" (which the Awakening preceded) look good, the sheiks are restless. Awakening candidates did not do as well as expected, and Awakening spokesmen have charged voter fraud by the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, rooted both in the Muslim Brotherhood and Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, which in early, possibly unreliable leaked results was getting about 40 percent of the vote. A curfew was declared as Awakening people murmured darkly that if things didn’t change or vote fraud was proven, they might have to handle their opponents the way they did al-Qaeda.

In Mosul in the north, Sunni Arabs and Kurds have been struggling for dominance, and early results show Sunni Arabs with the electoral upper hand. Mosul is on the outskirts of traditional Kurdistan, but the Kurds have been moving people there in hopes of dominating the city. Bad feelings and perhaps even violence could be brewing there.

Despite the relative smoothness with which the elections were pulled off, then, there are reasons for caution. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies warned in a paper [.pdf] that it will be months before the results can be judged properly for the simple but often overlooked reason that in the long run capability to govern is more important than which faction one represents:

"It is not yet clear how well the vast majority of those candidates who are elected in this election will actually do in office," he writes. "For many, it will be a learning experience – to put it mildly. It will also be a sobering – if not grim – experience in dealing with a central government that has deep divisions of its own, has deep elements of factionalism and corruption, often acts to the narrow advantage of its leaders, and which has not demonstrated the capability to allocate its budget effectively, much less actually spend it. These problems will be compounded by the fact that Iraq is moving from a surplus of oil export income to major problems with its coming national budget and economy."

So Iraq might have budget and economic problems almost as severe as those facing the United States.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of these elections is that the status or role of the U.S. seemed to play little role in the campaigning or in the positions taken by various parties. Presumably most of the Iraqi factions assume that the U.S. is on its way out, that Iraqis of some stripe or another are actually going to be running things fairly soon, and that now is the time to scramble for whatever piece of power they can grab as a new order emerges. It would be amazing if there weren’t at least a latent fear that Uncle Sam will stick around and insist on being the big brother, but at least the parties didn’t go out of their way to show that this one or that one resented the occupiers more than its adversaries did.

The lesson to take from this is that what Iraq becomes will be determined by Iraqis. There are likely to be democratic elements in the country that emerges, but democracy will mainly be used to justify the power arrangements that show themselves in coming months and years. There will be tussles for power. The country might even devolve into three semi-autonomous regions. It is unlikely that changes will be accomplished without at least some bloodshed. But it is just possible that after all the violence of the last several years, most Iraqis, whatever their sect or persuasion, are sick and tired of the killing and ready to embark on a process of building a society and allocating power and resources with less violence than before.

Even if the next few years witness violent clashes, the capacity of U.S. forces to be effective as peacekeepers or disinterested arbiters is much less than it might have been even a few months ago, and it is likely to decline. The Iraqis won’t get it right the first time, and they might take years to work things out. But the U.S. is more likely to complicate matters than to facilitate solutions, if only because of its limited capacity to understand the correlation of forces.

Max Boot seems to think that the election is a setback for Iran, but that is almost certainly wishful thinking. Iran is more powerful regionally than it was when the U.S. invaded Iraq, but the death of Saddam ensured that anyway. ISCI may be closer to Iran than Dawa, but Iran is likely quite content with Maliki, who gave Iranian boy president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a royal welcome last year. The Iranians might have preferred a closer ally, but their strategic interest is to make sure no attack is launched against them from Iraq, and Maliki will do just fine in that respect – especially if the U.S. begins exiting in a way that reassures people that it’s not planning to leave any significant combat force behind.

Anthony Cordesman thinks the emerging Iraq will still need a lot of help from the U.S. and the international community. "Even ‘Iraq good enough’ is still far from any kind of certainty," he writes. I would suggest, however, that the more certain the Iraqis are that the U.S. is really leaving – in an orderly way that will take a while, but really leaving – the more it will be clear that the burden of putting together an "Iraq good enough" lies on them rather than on Uncle Sam. The longer it appears U.S. forces are staying, the more Iraqis are likely to postpone taking the kind of full responsibility the U.S. has said it wants them to take. One doubted such protestations when the Bushies uttered them, suspicious that they really wanted to leave enough troops behind to run things (building on the vast success of the Coalition Provisional Authority, no doubt). But maybe an Obama administration will mean it. We can hope.

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Author: Alan Bock

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Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).