Monday, February 2, 2009

An Initial Take on the Iraqi Provincial Elections

In brief, my take is that the elections are as much unsettling as they are encouraging. Lots of apprehension, on several counts:
- Allegations of fraud in the balloting in Anbar, where tribal groups that were eager to oust the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) from power are hearing the IIP claim victory, and are now threatening to take to the streets with their guns.

"We threatened the electoral commission not to allow fraud. We said we will transform from a political entity to an armed wing against the electoral commission and the IIP because we discovered fraud," Awakening movement head Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha told Reuters.

Hamid al-Hais, head of the Anbar Tribes list in the election, traveled to Baghdad to lodge a protest.

"We will set the streets of Ramadi ablaze if the Islamic Party is declared the winners of the election," he told Reuters, referring to Anbar's provincial capital. "We will make Anbar a grave for the Islamic Party and its agents. We will start a tribal war against them and those who cooperate with them.". . . .

The electoral commission has said the election took place without major violations. However, it has acknowledged that thousands of people were unable to vote because they could not find their names on registration lists.

- In the north, Sunni Arab parties - especially, the al-Hadba party - seems to have made major gains against the allied Kurdish parties that had previously dominated Nineveh governorate. The Kurds have been hoping to fold parts of that region into the autonomous Kurdish super-region (and the ultimate prize the Kurds are demanding, of course, is Kirkuk, which also has significant Sunni Arab and Turkmen populations). The Arab population will now have the representation on the provincial council to withstand, and perhaps overrule, the Kurds' demands. Bear in mind the historical subtext here: many Kurds associate Sunni Arab political power with the Baath party, Saddam Hussein, and persecution that embraced what some would call genocide (as in Saddam's use of poison gas against the Kurdish village of Halabja in 1988). Many Kurds will not countenance a reassertion of Sunni Arab political clout, especially so close to Kurdistan - and the Kurds have the best armed and organized militias - the peshmerga - in Iraq. There is potential for huge trouble here - and, remember, the Kirkuk issue was not addressed in this balloting and still needs to be resolved. All of this, of course, at a time when Mr. Obama is talking about withdrawing US troops from Iraq. Dicey, and getting dicier . . .

- In the center and south, evidently major gains for incumbent prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and his Dawa party, which ran as part of a bloc called the State of Law, as well as more secular parties. Dawa itself is Iraq's oldest Shiite religious party, but with Maliki at its head, it has assumed a portion of the mantle of Iraq centralist nationalism. The big loser may be the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the largest Shiite religious party, which up till now has dominated much of Iraq's south, and still has hopes of creating there a multi-governorate Shiite super-region a la the Kurdish super-region in the north. ISCI also has deep ties with the Iranian leadership. And ISCI's militia, the former Badr Brigade, in recent years was folded into the Iraqi army. It is going to be very interesting now to see how well ISCI accepts the results of the elections.

A final thought, looking ahead and putting some of this together. Until recently, the Shiite and Kurdish elements in Iraq's parliament have acted as allies, in tandem with Prime Minister al-Maliki. On the other hand, those elements have become suspicious of Maliki's success in creating a much larger and better organized security force as an instrument of enforcing his power as head of a central government in Baghdad that he wants to ensure remains the seat of national authority. Also, the Kurds - along with the larger Shiite parties like ISCI and Dawa - have worked very closely with the US. But trouble is looming in all of these spots I've described above, and it is very easy to envision a scenario where Maliki needs to send central-government military forces northward if Kurdish groups try to assert themselves against Sunni Arabs reemerging there and trying to prevent Kurdish territorial aggrandizement. (Actually, that's already happened once, at Khanaqin, and the situation got very scary.)

Bottom line: If anyone believes that Iraq is out of the woods and that the violence is "over" . . . I wouldn't be counting those chickens just yet.

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