It’s a depressing scene: warring political factions; a messy reconstruction plan; division amid crisis. But no matter how grim the state of affairs in the U.S. Congress, Americans can at least look with satisfaction at the political efflorescence underway in Iraq. On Saturday, Iraq held its first nationwide elections in three years. The results will not be in for several more days, but the weekend vote already has provided fresh proof of the stellar progress that Iraq has made in recent years – a once-unlikely evolution that may yet be undone by a rash withdrawal of American forces.
One of the more encouraging aspects of Iraq’s election day is just how uneventful it was. Considering that the previous election, in January 2005, was marred by a spree of terrorist violence that saw 44 people killed, 9 deadly suicide bombings, and widespread harassment and intimidation at voting stations, the deficit of headline-making news must be considered a positive step forward. Despite the massive scale of the weekend vote, in which some 14,400 candidates from 400 parties stood for the provincial election, there were no reported deaths throughout and only a few isolated incidents of violence. One Iraqi voter summed up the new atmosphere: “We were not able to vote during the 2005 elections because of the deteriorating security situation. But now we feel safe enough to go out and vote.”
The reduced role of U.S. forces is another measure of Iraq’s advancing progress. The New York Times – hardly known for its boosterish coverage of the Iraq War – described security conditions over the weekend as “extraordinary,” and much of the credit can go to Iraq’s growingly effective military forces and police. Permitted to cast their ballots earlier last week, some 620,000 Iraqi police officers and troops were on hand to oversee the voting. American troops, having made impressive security gains during the 2007 troop “surge,” could cede the stage for the first time in Iraq’s recent history.
Nowhere was the new security environment more manifest than in Nineveh Province in northern Iraq. Long a symbol of Iraq’s internecine carnage and its enduring sectarian feuds, in August 2007 the province was the site of a series of devastating truck bombings in which as many as 500 people were killed. Outbreaks of violence between Kurds and Arabs, part of a vicious power struggle between the province’s two main groups, had become routine. Over the weekend, however, Nineveh was a picture of calm. Local administrators reported orderly voting and turnout as high as 90 percent in parts of the province – one of the highest rates in all of Iraq.
Besides being safer, Iraqi politics are also becoming less divisive. Early evidence from the elections indicated that many Iraqi parties had chosen to de-emphasize their religious and ethnic affiliation in favor of a more secular and cohesive platform. (The secular bloc of, Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister, was most representative of the trend.) It helps that one of the most polarizing factions in Iraqi politics – the Mahdi militia of renegade Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – has been effectively marginalized as a political force. From one of the most feared figures in Iraq, Sadr has been reduced to backing independent candidates as his main means of influence. Whatever the outcome of the elections, Sadr’s stamp on Iraqi politics will likely be minimal going forward.
Crucially for Iraq’s political development, Sadr’s ebbing clout coincides with cresting Sunni participation in the democratic process. The importance of that development can hardly be overstated. With the ouster of Saddam Hussein from power and the end of Sunni hegemony, Sunnis were alienated from Iraqi politics, boycotting both the national and the provincial elections of 2005. Lacking a political outlet, Sunni grievances soon fueled the insurgency that raged in Iraq for three blood-soaked years.
But the so-called “Anbar Awakening” of 2006, in which Sunni tribes in Anbar province joined forces with American troops to defeat al-Qaeda and affiliated terrorists, has seen the Sunnis assume a greater role in Iraq’s politics. The trend continued over the weekend. In Anbar province, turnout was reported to be over 60 percent, a sign, perhaps, that Sunnis have at last made peace with Iraq’s democratic reality. At the very least, the surge in Sunni participation suggests that even the most-embittered of Iraq’s constituencies has belatedly come to accept a core principle of the new Iraq: political differences will be settled at the ballot box.
No election is entirely flawless, and the weekend vote inevitably had its share of mishaps. But it is interesting to consider the substance of Iraqi voters’ grievances, which ranged from confusion over voting registration and the location of polling places to frustration with the sheer number of candidates running for office. Doubtless there is room for improvement on these counts. On the other hand, Iraq has surely come a long way from the days of Saddam Hussein’s despotic one-man rule when one of the leading gripes about Iraqi politics is that there are too many choices on offer.
Encouraging though it is, Iraq’s progress is not guaranteed to last. It is still dependent, in part, on the security provided by America’s remaining 140,000 troops. While Iraqi voters queued up to vote this weekend, American forces were searching for terrorists who had shot two Iraqi policemen in Mosul. To withdraw U.S. forces prematurely, as President Obama has urged, would be to risk the halting but undeniable progress that this weekend’s voting represents.
President Obama has long made it clear that Iraq is not his war. But even he must appreciate the significance of 7.5 million Iraqis – more than half of all eligible voters – casting their vote without fear or terror. This weekend, Iraqis made their voices heard. For the sake of the country’s continued progress – and America’s national interest – one should hope that the new president was listening.