Now the hard part for Iraq - and the US
By Charles McDermid
SULI, Iraqi Kurdistan - At about the same moment on Sunday when United States
President Barack Obama was in the White House Rose Garden praising a relatively
peaceful voting day in Iraq, revelers in this northern city were blasting
handguns and Kalashnikovs into the sky, often from speeding vehicles, in their
own show of happiness for a day that will be a defining event for the nation,
Earlier in Baghdad, Apache and Blackhawk helicopter gunships hovered over the
city as residents braved a morning of deadly terrorist attacks to take part in
the country's second parliamentary elections since the toppling of Saddam
Hussein in 2003; a
democratic process still in its infancy after seven years of American
The average Iraqi complains of security problems, joblessness and poor public
services, namely electricity. The average American bemoans a misguided invasion
that has cost lives, international standing and shrinking national treasure. A
botched election, or worse, a return to the internecine sectarian bloodshed
that followed the 2005 vote, would shatter the hopes of both camps.
Obama, who campaigned on a promise to bring home US troops that were deployed
by his predecessor, has come under increased pressure for failing to prioritize
Iraq . Critics say the job is being left half-done, forcing Iraqis to relive
the trauma and political bickering that has made progress nearly impossible for
the past 30 years of misrule and war. Doves in America say that troops should
be home already, the money and time spent elsewhere.
Coming off defeats on domestic issues and facing tough mid-term elections, the
Obama administration could ill-afford another black eye in Iraq . Earlier this
year, Obama and Vice President Joe Biden personally intervened to coax
reluctant parties to accept an election law and smooth over simmering political
disputes. American troops on the ground have been engaged in trilateral
programs meant to ease a standoff between Kurdish and Arab armies in disputed
areas such as Kirkuk .
Support for the election came from unlikely sources: Iraq's Sunni Muslim
minority, which largely boycotted the 2005 vote, had agreed to take part, while
violently anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr had spurred his followers to
vote en masse to "end the foreign occupation". In recent weeks, a boycott was
narrowly avoided amid a purge of politicians with links to Saddam's outlawed
Ba'ath party, and secular parties were said to be gaining support.
The were signs that Iraq could be poised to enter a post-election period of
stability with a government no longer dominated by ethno-sectarian quotas or
requiring the 100,000 US combat troops still stationed in the country. As some
analysts pointed out, the geopolitical stakes had never been higher.
"[Obama's] handling of Iraq in the next six months could determine whether it
ends in success - with US troops withdrawing from a stabilizing democracy that
is a US ally - or leads to a victory for Iranian interests or a civil war that
could destabilize the entire Middle East," declared an editorial in Sunday's
Washington Post titled "Endgame in Iraq".
With this backdrop, millions of Iraqis went to the polls on Sunday to select -
from more than 6,000 candidates from 86 political parties - 325 seats in
parliament that will, after a period of political bargaining and
coalition-building, forge the next government. Preliminary results will emerge
on March 10-11, and the Supreme Court has one month after appeals to validate
For several days, F16 fighter jets had screamed over the capital, Baghdad
residents told Asia Times Online, and on Sunday more than one million security
troops were deployed across the country. Just after sunrise, attacks began in
Baghdad. Twenty-five people were killed when a mortar round smashed into a
housing complex in a Baghdad neighborhood. There were additional strikes across
the city involving homemade explosives, small arms and Katyusha rockets,
according to local media. Officials claimed security teams found and disarmed
as many as 16 improvised bombs at polling stations around the city.
By nightfall, the death total that had been steadily climbing all day, stood at
Despite the violence, the election was hailed a success. United States
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the Associated Press that there was
"surprisingly little violence" and that the turnout was "high or higher than
expected". Electoral officials estimated it at 60-68%. The United Nations was
quick to applaud the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission and its
300,000 observers, and the governor of Baghdad congratulated citizens for their
bravery. The head of Iraq's top independent election watchdog, the Shams
Organization, told ATol the fraud allegations were less than expected and
shouldn't mar the final results.
Speaking in Washington, Obama told the press, "Today's voting makes it clear
that the future of Iraq belongs to the people of Iraq. Today, in the face of
violence from those who would only destroy, Iraqis took a step forward in the
hard work of building up their country."
With the election too close to call, it is certain no political bloc or party
will gain the two-thirds majority needed to form a government. What comes next
is a period of political bargaining that even optimistic analysts and
politicians expect to be lengthy. After 2005, it took parliament almost five
months to form a government, leaving the country exposed to terrorist attacks
largely attributed to al-Qaeda.
"I am sure the forming new government will take months. The reason is the
mistrust between Iraqi politicians and parties. It will be very difficult for
the new government to get a vote of confidence in the next Iraqi parliament.
Even a Shi'ite-led government cannot go through parliament easily. Before they
were united, but now they have different separate lists, and itís the same with
the Kurds and Sunnis," said Azad Chalak, a member of the Iraqi parliament's
"Any delays in forming a government after the poll will make the problems of
Iraqis worse. The threat of attacks is one thing, but Iraq also badly needs
services and investment. Actually, the country cannot bear deadlock again."
Animosity between Sunnis and Shi'ites led to bombings and suicide attacks that
paralyzed parts of the country culminating in 2006 and 2007. Since then,
improved security has been a campaign hallmark of current Prime Minister Nuri
al-Maliki, who has tried to pin himself as a strongman nationalist with a large
Shi'ite powerbase. Maliki, whose State of Law Coalition of mostly Shi'ite
parties is an early frontrunner, emerged after as a compromise prime minister
from the 2005 parliamentary bargaining period.
Experts believe Maliki's strongest challenge will come from a bitter rival,
former prime minister Iyad Allawi, who was installed as premier by the US in
2004 and who is believed to have Washington's blessing. A Shi'ite secularist
who escaped assassination by Saddam's hitmen in 1978, Allawi heads the
al-Iraqiya party, a coalition that includes top Sunni leaders and secular
After voting on Sunday in Basra, 30-year-old civil servant Rasha Salim gave her
reason for supporting Allawi: "I voted for Iraqiya. I believe that Allawi
enjoys a strong personality just like Saddam Hussein, and he is the one who
will fulfill my dreams."
Salim continued, "He is the one who will work on providing services and
security. The political climate is going to change for the best and many
delayed issues are going to be solved. This government will be more credible
than the previous one especially after US forces pull back. I think that these
elections are very important, at least to change the parliament to a better
Analysts expect the bargaining period to make for some complex arrangements and
perhaps intriguing political bedfellows. A new opposition party has split the
longstanding Kurdish bloc and has indicated it would be open to alliances with
non-Kurdish blocs; secular movements could bring together dissatisfied Sunni
and Shi'ite parties, and there are compensation seats for Christian, Turkomen
and other minorities. A quota system in place since 2004 requires 25% of
parliamentarians to be women.
It all makes for a confounding political equation that will play out in the
weeks, if not months, to come. The impending parliamentary dogfight will
include wrangling over the appointment of a president, who then nominates a
prime minister, who in turn selects a cabinet with an undefined number of
seats. Then the selected executive branch goes back to parliament for approval.
With the election complete, how and when the new government is formed will
influence Washington's relations with Baghdad.
In earlier remarks to media, Obama reiterated his goal of removing all US
combat forces by August and for all troops to have withdrawn by 2011. Critics
have continued to point out that Obama's goal appears to be removing the
troops, rather than building a functioning democracy or keeping the peace
between longstanding enemies. This is a common complaint in semi-autonomous
Kurdistan, once a staunch US ally that has felt neglected in recent years as
Washington has focused on Baghdad.
"I am concerned about Obama's withdrawal plan and his carelessness about Iraq.
Obama should know that the fragile democracy in Iraq depends on how many US
troops are on the ground in Iraq," said Hemin Lihony, a political analyst in
Last month, Biden set off a storm by saying on a popular talkshow that Iraq
"could be one of the great achievements of this administration. You're going to
see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You're
going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a
Savvy journalists were quick to point out that the Status of Forces Agreement
was signed before Obama, who opposed many phases of the war in Iraq, took
office. Biden was also reminded of his former plan to "Balkanize" the country
by dividing it between Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurds. In fact, the driving force
behind the 2004 Iraqi constitution that now guides Iraq's fledgling democracy
was staunch neo-conservative L Paul Bremer during his time at the head of the
transitional government in Baghdad .
If Obama stands to risk so much from potential fallout in Iraq, some in Iraq
wonder whether a possible democratic success story is his to rightfully claim.
Lihony is one of many Iraqis, especially Kurds, who consider George W Bush a
hero who overthrew a genocidal madman. He remains bullish on Iraqi democracy
but questions Obama's role in shaping it.
"We Iraqis have proved that people of this region deserve what Western
countries have. We have proved that democratic rights are not only Westerns
values and rights. We have proved that democratization does work.
"This is thanks to the neo-cons in America. What we have today is traced back
to their efforts and hard-fought ideas."
Charles McDermid is an editor for the Institute of War and Peace
Reporting in Iraq.