Opinion

Iraq election: Will hope -- or fear -- sway voters?

Iraqi elections March 7 will be another major test of the country's democratic experiment.

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Each election in Iraq has been a critical turning point. The first post-Saddam Hussein election, in early 2005, was boycotted by Sunni Arabs. It was followed by mounting sectarian polarization and violence.

In the second election, in late 2005, all communities, including Sunnis, participated – but fear and anxiety caused Iraqis to vote their own sectarian or ethnic identity. Sunni Arabs mainly voted for Sunni Islamists, Shiites overwhelmingly voted for Shiite Islamists, and, of course, Kurds voted for the two Kurdish parties. This was the case even among voters who identified themselves as secular.

The second election was a relative success: The national unity government that was formed gave Iraq’s main communities representation in the three branches of government.

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But extremist groups sought to destabilize the country through high-profile attacks, like the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra in 2006. The result was an explosion of sectarian rage among the Arabs and a wave of violence that pushed the country close to the brink of civil war.

The national elections on March 7 will be another major test of Iraq’s democratic experiment.

The question is whether Iraqis will advance further by capitalizing on hard-earned progress and embrace issue-based political competition, or whether the country will regress toward the earlier pattern of sectarianism and violent political competition.

Signs of progress

The trends had been positive until very recently. Sectarian tensions and violence – and violence in general – have declined significantly. Public opinion polls in recent months indicated increased support for nonsectarian parties and coalitions. Iraqis were becoming optimistic about the future.

Part of the credit for the positive trends belonged to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar Province.

In addition to US efforts to improve security, Mr. Maliki cracked down on anti-Sunni Shiite militias and death squads in Basra and in Sadr City. Sunni tribes turned on Al Qaeda, which had been killing Shiites in the “triangle of death” and along the highways spanning Anbar and Nineveh provinces.

Iraqis generally, in turn, were moving away from sectarianism. Unlike in 2005, political alignments are cross-sectarian. In an encouraging sign, Sunnis and Shiites have grown more politically diverse; they are not reflexively supporting sectarian politicians of their own sect.

An indication of the shift in public opinion was the change in Maliki’s political alignment. Rather than staying with the Shiite political coalition of 2005, Maliki broke away in 2009 in preparation for the upcoming national elections. He formed an issue-oriented and cross-sectarian coalition, calling it “State of Law.”

His coalition outperformed other Shiite parties in the provincial elections and is set to do well in the national elections. In my conversations in Baghdad with Maliki, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, and others, many expect Maliki to do very well again.

Maliki is not alone in moving in this direction. Tariq Hashimi, the Sunni Arab vice president who was the leader of a Sunni Islamist group, the Iraqi Islamic Party, has left the party and has joined the liberal cross-sectarian alliance, Iraqiya, led by Mr. Allawi.

Polls show increased support for this group, too – when compared with 2005. Similarly, Interior Minister Jawad Bulani, a moderate Shiite, has formed a cross-sectarian alliance with Sheikh Abu Risha, a key Anbar tribal leader who rose against Al Qaeda. This alliance is expected to win a

number of seats.

These positive trends have alarmed extremists and sectarian groups and their regional backers. Some Arab states fear the success of democracy in Iraq and harbor prejudice against Shiites, perceiving them as an extension of Iranian influence. Iran, meanwhile, favors a weak Iraq that is divided on sectarian lines.

The extremist agenda

To undermine Maliki’s image as the leader who has delivered increased security to the people and to re-create the climate of mistrust and fear, the terrorists and the extremists have escalated violence with a string of spectacular bombings in Baghdad and in other parts of Iraq in recent weeks. Targeted assassinations have also increased.

Sectarian parties, which were losing ground, have sought to repolarize the political scene. They hope that fears will cause Iraqis once again to vote their identities.

The banning of many candidates – including several prominent Sunnis – over allegations of sympathizing with Mr. Hussein’s Baath Party may well be part of this divisive agenda.

Maliki’s support of this decision shows that the issue has resonance among the Shiite population and that he felt he could not afford to ignore or surrender the issue to his more sectarian rivals. His affirmation threatens to undermine his stated commitment to nonsectarian politics.

As a result of these developments, the situation in the country has become more tense and security officials are concerned about increased violence before and after elections.

A key question: How will the Sunnis ultimately react to the ban? If they join the National Dialogue Front party in boycotting the polls or have a very low turnout, Iraq will go back to rough conditions like those just after its first election in early 2005.

Another scenario is that Sunnis participate in the election, while viewing the ban as an attack on their identity. This would result in members of both sects voting their identities. Sunni-Shiite relations would deteriorate, as in the second election in late 2005.

However, there is an excellent chance that the Sunni Arabs will not boycott the elections. Similarly, there is a good chance that most Arab Iraqi voters see the actions of terrorists and sectarians for what they are – an attempt to force Iraqis to vote out of fear rather than out of hope – and focus on the issues their futures depend upon: security, freedom, employment, and services. If so, Iraq will make a major leap toward consolidating its democracy.

Zalmay Khalilzad is the former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations. He’s now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and CEO of Khalilzad Associates LLC.

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