Edition 8 Volume 8 - March 25, 2024

Iraq elections assessment

Building a state on a sectarian, ethnic and quota basis -   Sawsan al-Assaf

Sectarianism will almost certainly ensure that Iraq's major cities again witness an increase in violence.

Turbulence at the exits -   Greg Bruno

The political turbulence following the March 7 vote--and the wave of violence that punctuated it--illustrates just how long the road for Iraq truly is.

The game is not over -   Safa A. Hussein

If all four blocs form a government, this could ease tensions with Saudi Arabia.

A victory for Iran? -   Sadegh Zibakalam

In the short term, anti-western forces both inside and outside Iraq can smile.

Building a state on a sectarian, ethnic and quota basis
 Sawsan al-Assaf

The Iraqi elections and Iraq's one-day-democracy are over. The positive aspect was the big turnout. According to official statistics, 63 percent of those who had the right to vote used that right. The negative aspects are more numerous. There was the violence that preceded and accompanied the elections, the liquidation of some candidates, the barring of a significant number of others on the pretext that they were Baathists, the huge demonstrations that overwhelmed some cities, like Baghdad and Basra, demanding the evacuation of all old members of the Baath party from these cities, and the interference of the pro-government militia to force people to vote for certain lists.

Vote rigging aside, in the end Iraqis have made the mistake of electing the same lists and personalities that in the past proved to be corrupt, inefficient, sectarian and unable to improve life, security and services in Iraq. Of course such an outcome was clear from the beginning as there was no real national or technocrat list to vote for.

The coming weeks, if not months, will now witness a struggle between the lead lists to form the new government. Incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, of the State of Law coalition list, and former PM Iyad Allawi, head of al-Iraqia, have gained an almost identical number of seats in the new parliament. Maliki has already got the support of the third list, the Iraqi National Alliance headed by Ammar al-Hakim. If he gets the backing of the Kurdish Alliance of Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, he could easily form a new government. However he has to give several concessions to the other lists--the allocation of sovereign ministries, the nomination of the head of the parliament, the relationship between the Kurdish Federal Region and the central government, etc.--and a new government led by Maliki looks likely to be run mainly on sectarian and ethnic lines. This could take the country back to the era of sectarian violence.

Meanwhile, Allawi is likely to do his best to woo the Kurds to switch their allegiances. This will not be easy as most leading members of his list, such as Tariq al-Hashimi, insist that Iraq is an Arab republic and on having an Arab Sunni nominated as president of the republic. Such a move will surely alienate the Kurdish lists. It would appear difficult for Alawi to get the support of the third list, that of al-Hakim, which accuses Allawi's list of containing too many Sunnis and old Baathists.

The American reaction was demonstrated by the speech of US President Barack Obama, who congratulated Iraqis on their "successful" elections. It is obvious the outcome of the vote, apart from coinciding with US plans to carry out a massive withdrawal of its forces in Iraq, satisfies Washington as the winners and losers are both people friendly, if not obedient, to American policy. Although the US would have preferred to see a secular Iraq rather than a religiously ruled one, this objective could be sacrificed as long as whoever rules in Baghdad follows US orders.

As for the US withdrawal, this will be decided by the security situation in Iraq in the coming months and the issue of Iran's nuclear file. US forces and influence will of course not be withdrawn completely from Iraq. Indeed, the SOFA agreement, the oil deals, the many military bases, the biggest embassy in the region if not the world, as well as the strong influence the US exerts on Iraqi politicians, ensure that the American presence in Iraq will be an almost permanent one. The major US concern is the future of Iraqi-Iranian relations, or, more precisely, Iranian influence in Iraq. How Iran uses that influence, meanwhile, will be decided by how the US and Israel react to Iran's continuing defiance over its nuclear program.

The new Iraqi government will also have to grapple with the nature of Iraq's relations with the region. If the same sort of government as the last one is formed, then those relations will follow the same pattern: close ties with Iran, tense relations with Saudi Arabia and Syria (as the former is strictly against the Shi'ite domination of Iraq and the latter is home to the vast majority of the candidates who were barred from standing), neutral with Turkey and Jordan. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmedinezhad, in anticipating the formation of a loyal new Iraqi government and to show his confidence that it will not change its good relations with Iran, firmly assured his allies in Syria that Iraq is part of the crescent that opposes and resists US policy in the region.

As for relations with Kuwait, those will be decided by the latter's position on the never-ending reparations Iraq pays the country. This picture will, however, change in two cases: if Allawi's secular list forms a new government and an Arab Sunni president is elected instead of Talabani; or in the case of a power-sharing deal between Maliki and Allawi, in which case the Kurdish coalition would lose out, something that would also please Turkey.

What is certain after two elections and seven years of occupation is that Iraq has turned into a country built on a sectarian, ethnic and quota basis. No Sunni is challenging for the post of prime minister and the only question about the post of president is whether an Arab or a Kurd will fill it. Such sectarianism will almost certainly ensure that Iraq's major cities yet again witness an increase in the level of violence between supporters of different lists.- Published 25/3/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org

Dr. Sawsan al-Assaf is a lecturer and researcher at the Center for International Studies, University of Baghdad, and visiting fellow at SOAS, University of London.

Turbulence at the exits
 Greg Bruno

The flight path from Abu Dhabi to New York routes directly through Iraqi airspace, and from 32,000 feet, the Fertile Crescent is an oasis of calm. Streaks of dark green punctuate a thick lattice of azure river valleys and creme-colored sand. A sense of order--natural and manmade--permeates the horizon. But on the ground, especially in Baghdad these days, organized chaos (for now, primarily of the political variety) is emerging.

Making sense of Iraq's post-March 7 election mess has become something of an analytic parlor game--even before all the votes are counted. But as the West holds its breath, this much appears increasingly certain: maintaining order will be less an American priority than an Iraqi responsibility.

Iraq's most recent parliamentary voting was, by all accounts, a step toward democratic order. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law coalition was expected to cruise to an easy victory, but with 95 percent of the vote counting complete, Iraqia, the rival cross-sectarian bloc led by ex-prime minister Iyad Allawi, is slightly ahead. The Iraqi National Alliance, a coalition of Shi'ite religious groups--which includes followers of radical Shi'ite cleric Moktada al-Sadr--remains third. Yet no bloc is expected to win a majority in the 325-member Council of Representatives, and ruthless political jockeying will be needed to form a ruling coalition. Official results could be certified by the end of the month.

More troubling than tallies and coalition-building, however, may be the underlining trends in Iraq's voting tendencies. Iraqis are still voting along sectarian and ethnic lines, considered a harbinger of bad politics and general instability. An election campaign driven in part by a de-Baathification agenda helped solidify State of Law as a mainly Shi'ite-oriented Iraqi nationalist coalition, and Iraqia as a somewhat more Sunni-oriented one. So while Iraqis express disdain for sectarianism, they continue to vote along sectarian lines. National consensus remains elusive.

Forming a government in such a charged political atmosphere will be painful; Maliki is already wooing allies and angering rivals. Iraq's constitution contains no provision for governing in the post-election period, and determining the role of the transitional government will pose a significant initial challenge. Jockeying over Iraq's largely ceremonial presidential post--which will nonetheless set the course of the country's elected government--is also heating up.

While Iraqis sort out their electoral difference, regional trepidation is building. Iraq's Arab neighbors worry that a strong showing by Shi'ites in Iraq could embolden Tehran and further weaken Iraq's Sunni minority, potentially destabilizing the country. Dar Al Hayat columnist Hassan Haidar writes that while "politics is on its way to replacing instincts in the new Iraq," foreign influence--notably Iran's role in feeding sectarian divisions--will continue to test Iraqis' resolve. And Abdullah Alshayji, a political scientist at Kuwait University, observes that the sectarian, ethnic and regional slant to voting means Iraq "has a long way to go down the road of participatory politics."

Regardless of which bloc comes out on top in the polls, rival groupings could outflank the poll winner and form their own coalition government. Comparisons are already being made to violence in the aftermath of parliamentary voting in December 2024. The predictable battles this time around could strain Iraq's fledgling political institutions and complicate the planned drawdown of US forces.

Yet complicate doesn't mean derail, and the Obama administration is sticking by its timeline: by August, only 50,000 US troops will remain in Iraq, down from roughly 96,000 American troops in Iraq now. The top US commander in the region, Gen. David H. Petraeus, reiterated this position on March 16 during congressional testimony. Under current plans, American troops are slated to leave Iraq completely by 2024, though some defense analysts have called for an indefinite extension. But ironically, the strong showing by Iraq's Sadrists on March 7--the expectation is they may come away with 40 or more seats--may prevent a renegotiation of the United States' withdrawal plans.

It's far too early to term Iraq a permanent success. The political turbulence following the March 7 vote--and the wave of violence that punctuated it--illustrates just how long the road for Iraq truly is. But for all the warning signs, March 2024 is a far cry from the tumult of years past. Violence is down across the country, and civilian deaths are at an all-time low. Increasingly, Iraqis are turning to politics to solve disputes (even if threats of violence lurk just below the surface). And no matter the vantage point, that's a picture the United States appears willing to live with.- Published 25/3/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org

Greg Bruno is a staff writer for CFR.org, the website of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The game is not over
 Safa A. Hussein

Already, one can hardly find the posters, banners and other signs of campaigning that filled the streets prior to the March 7 elections. Yet election news is still making headlines.

The elections were viewed as a major achievement for the Iraqi security forces, who secured the movement of over 18 million Iraqis to more than 8,000 polling stations countrywide. The Iraqi public took pride in participating and challenging the death threats of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Yet the real news is the outcome. The final results will be announced within days. Additional time is required to look into complaints raised by candidates before the final results are approved. Even then the game is not over. Elections are but one round; forming a government is the second and perhaps more important phase. This will be very complicated: there are too many players, and the rules of the game are not well established. While interactions between and within these groups shape the formation of the government, the lack of established traditions of democracy awards the losers in the election an important role in the aftermath.

The key players may be classified into three groups: national (Iraqi political parties), international (mainly foreign governments) and transnational. Al-Qaeda is the main transnational player; its publicly declared objective, which it failed to achieve, was to prevent the elections. On the contrary, the success of the elections weakened al-Qaeda and it will be further weakened by progress in the political process.

Iraq's relations with many neighboring countries in the post-Saddam era have been affected by regional and bilateral issues. Some countries believe that Iraq with its resources and potential, once it reemerges, could affect the region unfavorably from their standpoint. They believe that now is the time to influence developments in Iraq to their benefit. Some regional countries want Iraq, because of its geography, demography and resources to become part of the Iran/Arab and Shi'ite/Sunni conflict. In past years, they tried to exploit sectarian tensions in Iraq toward that end.

But the classic image of Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurd cannot precisely describe the political parties of today. Although sectarianism and ethnicity still play an important role in Iraqi politics, other factors may play a larger role in the realignments that inform the emergence of a new government: the distribution or re-distribution of power between political entities--reflecting their fear of losing power or of the abuse of power by others; the distribution of power and wealth among the central government, the Kurdistan region and the provinces; the disposition of disputed areas with the Kurds; and relations with neighboring countries. All these factors could make it more difficult for regional powers to intervene by means of sectarian polarization.

By the same token, the anticipated nature of the next government will also impact regional relations. Based on a count of about 90 percent of the votes, the major triumphant political blocs are the State of Law chaired by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, closely followed by Iraqia chaired by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Then come the Iraqi National Alliance chaired by Ammar al-Hakim and the Kurdish Alliance that consists mainly of the two major Kurdish parties.

These four blocs will hold more than 90 percent of the 325 seats in the next Iraqi Council of Representatives. To form a government requires the approval of two-thirds of the COR, meaning an alliance of at least three of these blocs. If all four blocs form a government, this could ease tensions between Iraq and Saudi Arabia in view of the friendships that tie some of the members of the Iraqia bloc to the Saudi government. Indeed, Iraqia could play a role in further improving Iraq's relations with many Arab states.

If Iraqia does not participate, then the newly formed government will be essentially a continuation of the outgoing coalition. In this case, current good relations with Turkey and Iran would be further deepened. Relations with many Arab and Gulf states would continue to improve, but those with Saudi Arabia and Syria would need more work.

If the Iraqia bloc, the Kurdish Alliance and the Iraqi National Alliance block the Maliki alliance and form the government themselves, this might not be directly detrimental to relations with regional countries but could harm them indirectly due to domestic problems that might emerge if the leading party is excluded from the government.- Published 25/3/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org

Safa A. Hussein is a former deputy member of the dissolved Iraqi Governing Council. He served as a brigadier general in the Iraqi Air Force. Currently he works in the Iraqi National Security Council.

A victory for Iran?
 Sadegh Zibakalam

A leading hard-line Iranian newspaper close to President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad summed up the elections in Iraq even before they were held on March 7 as "a proxy war between the United States and the Islamic regime in which the Great Satan has no chance to win". "Following their great Ulama and religious leaders," the paper predicted, "the patriotic people of Iraq, Shi'ites and Sunnis as well as Kurds, will say no to the US and its allies in Iraq and the region". Three days after the elections, Ramin Mehmanparast, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, used more or less the same vocabulary in responding to questions on the Iraqi general elections during a press interview. Iranian Foreign Minister Manochehr Mottaki was even more precise on the subject. Questioned about charges of Iranian interference in the Iraqi elections, the minister replied, "Why should we interfere when we are certain of victory?"

It is not difficult to understand why Iran is so confident of victory in these Iraqi elections. From its perspective, the elections represented a powerful political struggle between pro- and anti-American forces in Iraq. Of course Tehran is profoundly aware of the problematic and deep-rooted sectarian nature of Iraqi society and the significant influence of the sectarian factor on most Iraqi electorates. Nevertheless, the "American factor" holds the highest priority for the Islamic regime as far as the ultimate political destiny of Iraq is concerned. The fact that US forces are scheduled to leave the country beginning next August makes this election all the more important from the Iranian perspective.

The sectarian nature of Iraqi society is a powerful instrument for the Islamic regime to pursue its sociopolitical objectives in Iraq. But Iran is not the only state in the region that manipulates the sectarian factor to shape its interests there. Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and even the US exploit sectarianism for their political ends. Saudi support for the Sunni alliance--the Iraqia coalition headed by the pro-American secular Shi'ite leader Iyad Allawi--is more than apparent. Similarly, Iranian support for Moktada al-Sadr, a radical Shi'ite cleric who led the Shi'ite insurgency against the American occupation in 2024, demonstrates yet another example of the sectarian divide.

The case of current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, presumably the most likely candidate to form the post-election government, demonstrates both the delicate balance of power and the room for manipulation that enable neighboring powers to pursue their interests in Iraq. Since 2024, when Maliki replaced Ibrahim Jafari, he has tried to maintain a delicate balance between domestic anti-American forces and the Islamic regime on the one hand, and the more secular and Sunni forces and neighboring Arab states headed by Saudi Arabia on the other. The Islamic regime's support for the Maliki government was based upon two implicit conditions: his cooperation with the Americans and his toleration for Moktada al-Sadr and his radical movement.

Tehran's long-term policy appears to have paid off in these elections. With 80 percent of the votes counted, the radical Sadr group, by winning nearly 40 seats, has emerged as the single most powerful Shi'ite bloc in the future parliament. In the past, Moktada al-Sadr had refused to enter the political process, preferring instead to support an all-out jihad against the American occupation. Ironically, under pressure from Iran, the movement laid down its weapons and eventually embraced the political process, while remaining steadfast in its anti-American stand.

Given that no single coalition has gained enough seats to form a viable government, Maliki has to enter a partnership. One possible scenario, which would obviously be welcomed by Iran, is an alliance with Sadr's group. But the latter would demand a price for its support: closer ties with Tehran and a shift away from the US. This strategy, while congenial to Iranian leaders, would be strongly opposed by the Allawi-led Sunni alliance in the parliament, the more moderate Shi'ites, the Arab world and last, but by no means least, the US. On the other hand, a coalition of more moderate Shi'ites, secular forces and Sunnis would naturally be opposed by the radical Shi'ites and Tehran.

Given the impending US departure, the radicals and Iranian leaders are in no hurry to challenge the new post-election Iraqi government. The election has undoubtedly widened bitter sectarian wounds and religious divisions in Iraqi society. In the short term, anti-western forces both inside and outside Iraq can smile. But in the long term the democratic path, which ultimately emerged as the implicit winner of the country's election, will heal both religious and sectarian divides--in much the same way it has healed these wounds in other societies.- Published 25/3/2010 © bitterlemons-international.org

Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of political science at Tehran University.

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