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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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.
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.