Fears as Iraq elections near
Vote underlines tensions that show rivalries, which fueled war, are still largely unresolved.
Iraq is a week away from parliamentary elections that were supposed to showcase a peaceful democracy poised to stand on its own feet after U.S. forces go home.
While there have been successes, the vote also underlines the deep ethnic and sectarian tensions that are putting the country’s future in the balance — secular or Islamic, pro-Iran or pro-West.
Tensions leading up to next Sunday’s balloting, only the second for a full, four-year parliamentary term since the U.S.led invasion in 2003, show that despite more than 4,300 American deaths and tens of thousands of Iraqi deaths, the ethnic and religious rivalries that fueled the war remain largely unresolved.
If the election produces a government that can bring relative stability, President Barack Obama can declare success and comfortably withdraw all American forces by the end of next year.
However, if the election leads to greater instability, it will tarnish the legacies of Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, casting further doubt over the wisdom of a war that was launched on flawed intelligence that Saddam Hussein held weapons of mass destruction in violation of U.N. orders.
The country has seen progress since the dark days of the insurgency — explosions and the number of bodies at the morgue are fewer, and people move freely around the cities. Those are significant steps for a country where people were once terrified to leave their homes and fled the country by the hundreds of thousands.
But the election runup suggests the core issues that drove violence — power-sharing among the rival minority Sunnis, majority Shiites and the Kurds — remain unresolved and may be sharpening. That raises grave questions about what will happen when U.S. troops leave.
The U.S., which currently has a little less than 100,000 troops in the country, plans to withdraw all combat troops by the end of August and the remaining forces by 2012.
With over 6,200 candidates competing, no one is expecting a straightforward outcome with the quick seating of a new government. It is unlikely that any single group will win an outright majority of seats in the 325-member parliament, which may mean weeks or months of political maneuvering to form a ruling coalition.
It has been during these periods of instability that violence has spiked in Iraq, so all eyes will be watching for a peaceful transition of power.
The choices are stark. Iraq’s 18.9 million registered voters — especially Sunnis who ruled under Hussein and were the backbone of the insurgency — will decide whether the country throws its support behind a religious, Shiite-led government with close ties to neighboring Iran that would be likely under the Iraqi National Alli- ance. The alliance includes followers of the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
Or does Iraq go with the coalition led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who has appeal among Sunnis and Shiites.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition is somewhere in the middle. A compromise choice in 2006, alMaliki has survived and even thrived, trying to portray himself as a nationalist candidate who can cross sectarian lines and secure the country.
But his security credentials have been tarnished by a series of bombings that targeted government buildings and other buildings in Baghdad. In response, he has raised sectarian tensions by repeatedly blaming members of Hussein’s ruling Baath Party for the attacks, suggesting they were linked to alQaida in Iraq.
Adding to the unpredictability, voters won’t be getting any suggestions from Iraq’s top Shiite cleric.
The Grand Ayatollah Ali alSistani, who is highly revered by Iraq’s majority Shiites, has tried to remain above the political fray and has only encouraged a big election turnout. Also, the Iranian-born cleric has ordered his representatives across the country not to campaign for any blocs or candidates.
A supporter of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was at an election rally Saturday in Najaf. Parliamentary elections are next Sunday.