The Iraqi provincial elections, a prelude to national elections later this year or early next year, were carried out almost peacefully, and they were conducted and supervised almost entirely by Iraqi government officials and security forces.
This probably does not mean Iraq is on the verge of becoming a model democracy the rest of the Middle East will want to emulate, as some Americans have fantasized, but it is undeniably a hopeful sign.
Results from these elections are preliminary and, as Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute emphasized, leaked, from parties with an interest in spinning perceptions of the outcome.
Nonetheless, if reported trends hold, it appears Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Dawa Party will have performed better than most observers had expected, not only in Baghdad, but in southern Iraq. Former prime minister Iyad Allawi, generally considered more secularist and nationalist than religiously oriented, also did better than expected.
Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said this demonstrates in part the power of incumbency, “the oldest story in the Arab world.” She also said voters in and around the southern port city of Basra may be grateful to Maliki for sending national troops to that city to break the power of Shia militias, which had ruled the city and its environs ruthlessly and arbitrarily.
Whether these preliminary results indicate support for a strong central government is difficult to say. Ottaway suggests that while the Shia (and everybody else) were divided into several factions — there were 14,500 candidates for 440 provincial council seats — the Shia in general voted not so much for a powerful central government as for a government dominated by Shia, consolidating the changeover from when the country was run by the nominal Sunni Saddam Hussein and his henchmen.
Speculation these elections were bad news for neighboring Iran is also premature. As Carpenter pointed out, while ISCI is considered closer to Iran, Tehran is quite content with Maliki, who offered a royal welcome to Iranian president Ahmadinejad last year.
Some potential trouble spots could emerge following these election results. In Anbar province, where “Anbar Awakening” forces changed sides and subdued al-Qaida in Iraq, making the U.S. “surge” look good, Awakening candidates did not do as well as expected.
Preliminary results show the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood and Saddam’s Ba’ath party, with a plurality of 40 percent. Voter fraud has been charged and Anbar Awakening spokesmen have already expressed disappointment and offered an only slightly veiled threat that Awakening forces may do to them what they did to al-Qaida. A curfew has been declared.
In short, results from these elections are decidedly mixed. Iraq has shown it is capable of holding peaceful elections, and the role of the U.S. was not a major issue in the campaigning, in part because most Iraqis assume the U.S. is on the way out. However, stability and unity are a long way off — and unity may not be in the cards.
The bottom line is that while there are no guarantees that Iraq will become completely stable soon, there is little reason to delay the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The U.S. invasion destabilized the region and enhanced the power of Iran as a regional player, but what’s done is done. After a long period of violence and insurgency Iraq has become notably more stable and more Iraqis than before seem determined to resolve their differences through political processes rather than through open warfare.