Fragmented and fearful, Iraqis go to the polls

As Iraqis head to the polls Wednesday for national elections, the first since US troops left, the country is more fragmented and tilted toward extremes than at any time in the last decade.

Nabil al-Jurani/AP
A man passes by a campaign poster of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. If Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wins a third four-year term in parliamentary elections Wednesday, he is likely to rely on a narrow sectarian Shiite base to stay in power.

Iraqis go to the polls today in the first national elections since the withdrawal of US troops against the backdrop of a country increasingly at war with itself.

After five national and provincial elections in 10 years, the novelty of casting a ballot and dipping a finger in purple ink has worn thin. But with the fracturing of traditional political alliances, resurgent sectarian tension, and all-out war against anti-government fighters on Baghdad’s doorstep, the election is seen as a crucial test of whether Iraq will hold together.

For the US, the election is a stark illustration of how far Iraq has drifted from the type of country envisioned when Saddam Hussein was toppled 11 years ago. The political field is more fragmented and skewed toward the extremes than any time in the last decade, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, seeking a third term, is expected to struggle to put together a coalition.

The prime minister retains considerable support on the street and among the security forces, but in the four years since Iraq's last election, he has alienated many of his political partners. He is now courting a new party: Asaib Ahel al-Haq (AAH)'s political wing, which is headed by an Iran-backed Shiite leader believed by the US to have masterminded the killing of a group of American soldiers in Karbala in 2007. 

Sheikh Qais al-Khazali, who broke away from hardline Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s movement when it renounced violence in 2004, was detained by the US military for more than two years. The newly formed political wing of his Asaib Ahel al-Haq (League of the Righteous), called The Truthful, believes it could win at least seven parliamentary seats this time. 

In an office lined with bookshelves and plastic flowers, party spokesman Wahab al-Taey acknowledges the group’s military operations backed by Iran and what he describes as "effective attacks" against American forces in Karbala during the war. 

“That was before 2011,” when American military forces withdrew from Iraq, says Mr. Taey. "We were in a war.” 

But now, he says, the party would reach out to the US – unlike the Sadr movement, which refuses to deal with American officials. Maliki has courted Asaib Ahel al-Haq partially as as a counterweight to Mr. Sadr, who has gone from being a crucial ally to a political foe since the last election.

“Can we deny the role of the United States in the world?” asks Taey, a Romanian-educated nuclear engineer who professes admiration for Abraham Lincoln. “We must open a dialogue. We will seek a regional balance – we can’t live alone in this world or exclude the other side…We can see clearly that even Iran as a new superpower seeks relations with America. We are open to the world."

The US, which helped bring Maliki to power after urging his predecessor to resign in 2006, is also believed to have cooled on the prime minister. 

“What does [the US] care about?... We care about security and his security policy is a total failure,” says Kirk Sowell, publisher of the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter. "You compare things to how they were in 2010, how they were when we left in 2011, even how things were even a year ago, security-wise things are much worse.”

The case against Maliki

In Wednesday's election, more than 9,000 candidates from 71 parties and 38 coalitions are vying for 328 seats in the national parliament. 

In 2010, no single political bloc won enough seats to form a government. After months of negotiations, Maliki formed a coalition with the help of the Kurds and the Sadrists. This election is again expected to be followed by extensive bargaining to form a coalition government.   

Already, one of Maliki’s main rivals, Ayad Allawi, is indicating he will leave politics before dealing with Maliki – even if the prime minister wins a majority of seats.

Mr. Allawi, Iraq’s first interim prime minister after the war and head of the biggest Sunni bloc, says the prime minister needs to comply with a two-term limit for prime ministers that was approved in parliament but struck down in court. 

“What is happening now is lots of atrocities, lots of violations. The constitution is swept under the carpet. Now he controls part of the judiciary, he controls everything, and not only that, he is embarking on a policy of divide and rule… We can’t accept this after eight years of bloodshed in Iraq and total loss of security,” says Allawi.

Security concerns 

Turnout is expected to vary widely across the country, from high levels in the relatively calm south and Kurdish north to a much lower turnout in Baghdad, where a security clampdown aimed at preventing suicide bombers also makes it harder to reach polling stations. The capital has been hit with almost daily bombings, including attacks near polling stations and at election rallies.

With a week-long holiday declared, flights to the Kurdish north, a traditional holiday destination, were full of families who decided to take a vacation rather than stay home to vote. 

When the last vote was held, US forces still in the country had already pulled back to their bases under an agreement with the Iraqi government. Still, their presence provided some insurance for Iraqi security forces. This time, overstretched Iraqi security forces are on their own.

In Iraq’s biggest province, Anbar, Iraqi security forces have been battling the former Al Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), since December. Few in Fallujah, a city in Anbar controlled by ISIS and tribal fighters, are expected to be able to leave to vote at polling places secured by the Iraqi army outside the city.

For many Iraqis, whether to vote remains a struggle between hope for the future and disillusionment over the past.

“I was in Egypt and when I saw the first Iraqi government on TV after the war I cried – I thought maybe Iraq could be a real country,” says an Iraqi who asked to be identified by his first name, Awadh.

But after seeing candidates get elected in 2010 and then move from the neighborhoods that elected them to more affluent areas, he lost faith. This time, he says, he won’t vote.

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