The Monitor's View

Iraq elections on March 7: high stakes, shaky hopes

Recent bombings underscore the perilousness of the Iraq elections on March 7, and the consequences for the US and the Middle East. Still, the general trend has been positive, and that's encouraging.

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A series of deadly bombings meant to disrupt national elections in Iraq on March 7 point to the precariousness of the vote as well as its high stakes.

Iraq’s next leader and parliament will be in power for four years – beyond President Obama’s first term, past the scheduled withdrawal of US troops, and just as the nuclear threat from neighbor Iran reaches a more critical level.

In Sunday’s wide-open parliamentary elections, it’s impossible to know which candidates and political parties and alliances will get the approval from voters and their ink-stained fingers. But whoever comes out on top, and whatever coalition gets built, the new government’s success or failure will be hugely consequential not only for Iraq, but also for the United States and the Middle East.

Recommended: Shiite and Sunni: What are the differences?

Whatever new leadership emerges, it and the Iraqi security forces must continue the progress made so far toward peace and stability – and away from sectarian strife, even as various groups try to reverse that trend. Iraqis need to be able to shop and walk the streets without fear of being blown up. And seven years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, they need basic services such as reliable electricity and water, and most important, jobs. (For a Monitor report on Iraq's youth and the election, click here)

But the period following this election could be perilous. Just as with the parliamentary elections of 2005, it will likely take months of hardball politics to form a governing coalition. Such a political vacuum could create a security vacuum – perfect conditions for extremist groups to wreak havoc, as they did with the high-profile terrorist attack on the Golden Mosque in 2006. The rage and violence that followed almost led to civil war – some argued it was civil war.

Meanwhile, the constitutional mandate behind the present “unity” government – that it include all three major sects of Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds – expires with this election. Will the new leadership reach out to other sects and address the nation’s problems together? Or will it lock out representatives of critical populations and thus inflame sectarian anger?

An unstable Iraq would disrupt progress there and could upend US plans for withdrawal. At the moment, the Pentagon is still on track to pull about half its forces by the end of August and withdraw completely by the end of 2011. It needs that draw down to beef up its forces in Afghanistan and to close one front in a costly two-theater war.

President Obama also needs the withdrawal for political reasons. It was a campaign promise – and a strategy to force Iraq to come to grips with its problems. Still, the Pentagon says it has a contingency plan to keep combat troops in northern Iraq beyond Sept. 1, 2010.

How Iraq develops also has implications for the Middle East. Iraq is inching toward democracy in a largely autocratic region. If its crawl develops into a walk, it could positively influence populations in the neighborhood – and frighten their leaders. In the coin of the realm – oil – Iraq could reach Saudi output in a decade, greatly influencing markets.

But the front-burner concern for the region and the US is how Iraq will deal with Iran and its nuclear ambitions. President Hussein, a Sunni, warred against Shiite Iran. Now Iran has influence with the leaders of Iraq’s majority Shiite population. And yet, exerting influence is not the same as changing outcomes, and so far, it hasn’t been able to do that. Indeed, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki put down a Shiite militia with close ties to Iran.

So much remains to be done in the fledgling democracy of Iraq. And yet, the continuum of recent years offers some grounds for hope.

The Iraqi people – often far ahead of its leaders – are thoroughly fed up with terrorism and sectarian division. They turned against Al Qaeda and restrained retaliatory impulses, which helped the US troop surge of 2007-08 succeed. In provincial elections last year, they looked down on parties that organized themselves along sectarian or religious lines.

Indeed, in this election cycle, cross-sectarian alliances are gaining popularity as competition has emerged within groups, such as among the Kurds. In 2005, the Sunnis boycotted the national election. This time – despite a ban on some of their candidates – they’re expected to go to the polls. Meanwhile, important issues, such as corruption, have taken on greater importance.

Despite violence and drawn-out political haggling, the Iraqi parliament actually passed 50 bills in the last year, including a budget. Some institutions, such as the military and judiciary, are slowly gaining respect, and the country has a vociferous media. Women, too, are asserting themselves – in politics and elsewhere.

Many expect combative politics in the months ahead. Iraq may well veer off in a very worrisome direction. But while this country does not fly straight, so far, it’s still aloft and moving forward. Considering where it’s come from, that’s reason for encouragement.

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