Arab neighbors cast a wary eye on Iraq election results

With the first Iraq election results coming in, Middle East countries are watching close and gauging what the vote means for their influence on the oil-rich state.

Karim Kadim/AP
Iraq election: Electoral workers sort through ballots cast in the national election in Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday. Iraqi and UN officials say the first results from this week's parliamentary elections are likely to be released on Thursday.

As the first Iraq election results started to trickle in Thursday, many countries in the Middle East were watching closely for clues to how the outcome will shape regional dynamics.

A victory by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s coalition, which initial results show leading a tight race, would likely ensure the continued presence and influence of Iran in Iraqi politics.

But majority Sunni nations are watching for a surge from Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition. Mr. Allawi, a secular Shiite and former member of Saddam Hussein's Baath party, is seen as an Arab nationalist whose policies would tilt toward his Arab neighbors, rather than to Iran.

Under Mr. Hussein, Iraq was a bulwark for Arab states against the regional ambitions and influence of Iran, a Shiite regime long feared and often hated by its Sunni neighbors. Arab leaders are concerned that oil-rich Iraq could become part of an expanding sphere of Iranian influence.

"The issue here will be the reaction of Iran and the Sunni countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia," said Emad Gad, a political analyst at Cairo's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a government-financed think tank. "Iran is dealing with Iraq today as a region of Iranian influence, so Iran will refuse any Iraqi government that doesn’t deal with Iran as a big brother." Saudi Arabia would likely try to isolate a new Maliki government to counter Iranian influence, says Dr. Gad.

A new phase

Many in the region are watching the election with trepidation, and wondering what kind of regime will be left behind when US forces withdraw.

"We might be moving into a new phase where as the US takes a bow the other regional players step up their own presence, but it’s difficult to tell for now," says Peter Harling, the International Crisis Group’s project director for Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. "That’s one of the question marks for the period to come, how the US withdrawal and the vacuum that it entails will play out regionally."

In largely Sunni Arab Jordan, home to the second-largest population of Iraqi refugees after Syria, grocer Majdi Hijazin says he worries about what will happen if Shiites or Kurds gain more power. Mr. Hijazin says that he, like most Jordanians, hopes the Sunnis will be the big winners in the election. If not, he fears Iran may further influence Iraq, which could negatively affect Jordan in terms of both security and business opportunities.

"Of course it will have an effect on us Jordanians, but it’s very hard to know how exactly this election will affect us," he says. "Jordanians don’t know what the Shiites will do if they come into power."

Western enthusiasm 'premature'

Others across the region were more disinterested than worried, viewing US praise of the election as somewhat naïve and saying one election will not cause a huge political shift, or even much of a difference at all.

"Right now, the Egyptians are not interested in Iraq," said Ahmed Khalifa, a newspaper seller in Cairo. "The important things are Palestine, Gaza. Iraq doesn't affect us."

Samir Al Taqi, director of the Orient Center for International Studies in Damascus, called Western enthusiasm over the elections "premature." Before observers come to any conclusions about the election, he says they must first see if the new government is representative of Iraq’s different ethnic groups. If not, violence and instability are likely to continue.

"The Iraqi elections were a decisive step in Iraq’s path towards nation building. But we can’t yet judge whether they were a success and will move Iraq forward," he says.

And even if the election is proved a relative success, it will not mean an end to the country’s problems, says Ahmad Said Nufal, a political science professor at Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan. He predicts that his country and others such as Syria and Turkey will likely be hosting Iraqi refugees for years to come.

"I don’t think the election in Iraq will change anything. The problems between the parties will continue and at the same time terrorist attacks in Iraq will continue,” says Mr. Nufal. “We need two or three years to be sure before we say that [displaced] people can return back to Iraq."

Jordanians, Syrians want stability

Some Jordanians are hoping Iraq is stabilizing, providing business opportunities in the sprawling nation next door.

"If after the elections everything goes smoothly, it will affect us positively. People will start to do more business with Iraq and it will be more open between the two countries," says Georgette Fattaleh, a pharmacist in Amman. "But no one in Jordan thinks the elections will change Iraq. Now at the White House they are very happy about these elections, but it will not help."

In Syria, some hope a positive outcome to the elections will bring more stability to the region.

Amer Kasser, a telecommunications professional in Damascus, said it was positive to see a democracy emerging in the region and he hoped the government that emerges from the election would be strong enough to bring stability to Iraq.

Haifa Mohammad Said, a translator and editor at the Syrian Arab News Agency, also said she hoped the elections would be a positive step for the region, and allow Syria and Iraq to resolve border and refugee issues.

"The elections will hopefully help to do that," she says. "Whether this will happen or not depends on the results and whether there have been clean elections. Even so, Iraq still has a long way to go to get back on its feet."

Sarah Birke contributed to this report from Damascus, Syria.

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