Iraqis Spoke, but Hardly in Unison

The strong turnout in last week’s parliamentary elections in Iraq may have been just the kind of civic demonstration that President George W. Bush needed to restore some confidence in a weary public that Washington’s adventure in the country may not turn out to be such a disaster after all.

But one week after a reported 70 percent of Iraq’s 15 million eligible voters flocked to the polls, the actual results – and the way they will play out in the coming days – may not be so reassuring.

Based on preliminary reports, it appears that the administration’s hopes for a broad-based government, whose constituent parts are sufficiently weak to force far-reaching compromises that will prevent Iraq from disintegrating, may have become more difficult to realize than ever before.

Indeed, the centrifugal forces of ethnic and sectarian identity may actually have strengthened as a result of the elections, as many of the administration’s critics had predicted, particularly after the adoption in the October plebiscite of a draft constitution shifted the locus of power in Iraq from the central government to the regions.

"The unfortunate thing is that the common ground of Iraqi identity was really lost," said Rend al-Rahim, head of The Iraq Foundation here. "Iraqis are still voting their grievances; they’re voting their victimhood."

While Washington’s efforts to persuade the Sunni population to participate in the "political process" appear to have succeeded, it appears highly unlikely that Sunnis will get enough seats in the new parliament to exercise a major influence on any new government.

Their frustration, evidenced already by their angry charges of fraud in Baghdad and threats of a boycott of the new parliament, may deepen their own sense of grievance and thus fuel the insurgency, according to experts here.

"There is such militancy and suspicion within the Sunni Arab community that acceptance [of the election results] on the part of certain leaders would diminish their credibility and, in some cases, place cooperative leaders in very real danger of assassination," Wayne White, a retired top State Department analyst with the Middle East Institute (MEI), told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Equally discouraging to Washington, however, was the unexpectedly poor showing of secular parties, particularly the Iraqi National List (INL) led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, that the administration had hoped would emerge from the elections with enough strength to become indispensable to the formation of a government.

With a national, as opposed to a sectarian or ethnic, character, a strong INL in the government would exercise a cohesive influence on the country as a whole, it was felt here.

According to the latest reports, however, the INL received only about 8 percent of the total vote nationwide. This was a major disappointment for Washington, which had hoped that Allawi’s open courtship of Sunni voters would strengthen secular forces nationwide and act as a counterweight to the governing Shi’ite coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA).

Yet another secular party, the Iraqi National Congress (INC) of former Pentagon and neoconservative favorite Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi, reportedly received less than 0.5 percent of the vote, which, if it holds up, would deny him any representation in parliament at all.

What this adds up to, according to most analysts, including the savvy U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, is that the vast majority of Iraqis last Thursday voted along ethnic or sectarian lines.

"It looks as if people have preferred to vote for their ethnic and sectarian identities," he said Tuesday, adding, "But for Iraq to succeed, there has to be cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic cooperation."

The breakdown of the vote suggests that will be hard to come by. The Shi’ite UIA appears poised to claim just short of half of the 275 seats in parliament and, with the addition of lists associated with the Alliance, it may exceed the 50 percent needed to form a government on its own.

A two-thirds vote is required to elect a president, the first step in forming a government, however, so the Alliance, which includes the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Dawa Party of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and the followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, will have forge a coalition with at least one other major party or coalition.

As it did after last January’s elections, the UIA may very well do so with the two main Kurdish parties, which together will likely control slightly more than 20 percent of the seats.

As an overtly Islamic coalition, it may also be tempted to woo the Sunni National Accord Front (NAF), a fundamentalist party, which, to the disappointment of U.S. policymakers, led the Sunni lists.

Indeed, besides the sectarian and ethnic nature of the voting, one major outcome of the election is the clear triumph of fundamentalist Islamist parties – both Shia and Sunni – underlining both the degree and the direction that Iraqi society has been transformed since the U.S. invasion.

"We don’t want to admit yet what is happening – Iraq’s Islamization," noted Marina Ottaway, a democracy specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Altogether, the Sunni-led Iraqi Consensus Front (ICF), which includes the NAF, is expected to claim roughly as many seats in the new parliament as the Kurds. This gives it a much stronger voice than in the current parliament but still too little representation to ensure its voice will be heeded, particularly given Allawi’s poor showing.

What persuaded the Sunni population to participate in the election, of course, was less the promise of major influence in the new parliament, than the agreement worked out by Khalilzad just before the constitutional plebiscite in October for a process by which the draft constitution can be amended over the next four months.

Of greatest importance to the Sunnis are amendments that would bolster the central government’s powers vis-à-vis the Kurdish region in the north and a proposed nine-province Shia-dominated region south of Baghdad and ensure that oil revenues are shared equitably among all of Iraq’s regions.

"This will be the make-or-break point for the Sunnis," according to Rahim, who said she was pessimistic that the Kurds and the Shi’ites will be willing to accommodate Sunni demands in the election’s aftermath. She also said that Washington’s ability to influence the positions of all three groups will likely diminish rather than increase.

"It’s very unlikely that the process of revising the constitution is going to lead to a drastically different constitution from what we have now," Ottaway agreed.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.