View Full Version : Iraq's Political 'Census'

01-05-06, 08:06 AM
Iraq's Political 'Census'
The good--and not so good--lessons of its sectarian election turnout.
Thursday, January 5, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST

Final results of Iraq's election for a new, four-year parliament have yet to be announced. But it seems as if the body will look very much like the current one. Which means that we're about to find out if Iraq's political leaders--names like Talabani, Barzani and Hakim--really are as dedicated to democracy as their brave electorate obviously is.

Early signs are mildly encouraging. Kurdish and Shiite parties in the current interim governing coalition have said they'll share power with the Sunni Arabs newly elected in this round of voting. This could help deprive Baathist and Islamist terrorists of whatever popular support they have. And while the Sunnis initially cried foul at early returns, the larger of the two main Sunni factions has lately struck a more conciliatory pose.

The election's less fortunate outcome is that Iraq has yet to move even a baby step beyond identity politics. Although everyone expected the main Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni parties to do well, many of us had hoped for a stronger showing by the few pan-sectarian parties. In the end, the sectarians took nearly 90% of the nationwide vote, with former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's party picking up most of the scraps. The Iraqi columnist Nibras Kazimi exaggerated only slightly when he wrote recently in the New York Sun that "Iraq did not hold an election . . . it held a census."

One factor here was probably security, which caused some Iraqis who might have voted for policy in peaceful times to vote for ethnic solidarity and protection this time around. One Muhammed Wattan, for example, told Knight Ridder that he had intended to vote for Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi's non-sectarian slate but switched his vote at the last minute. "I felt that we are at war," said Mr. Wattan, understandably traumatized by continued terror attacks on his fellow Shiites.

Opponents of Iraq's liberation are spinning the vote as evidence of Iraq's looming breakup or incipient Shiite theocracy. But both fears have been asserted for years and haven't been realized yet. Religious and ethnic parties were always going to play a prominent role in the politics of a Free Iraq, and the realities of wielding power may well promote compromise.

The dominant Shiite United Iraqi Alliance (which will likely take about 130 of 275 seats) in particular has a lot to prove. Fuel and electricity shortages have been problems on its current watch, and prisoner abuses at the Interior Ministry are cause for concern. The government's decision to appoint Mr. Chalabi as acting Oil Minister last week--despite his poor electoral performance after separating from the Alliance--is a sign it recognizes the importance of competence over ideology in key posts.

UIA leaders also face suspicion of their close ties to Iran. Our guess is that most of the Alliance's supporters are Iraqi nationalists who will not put up with an overclose relationship to their powerful neighbor. The fact that rival clerics Moqtada al-Sadr and Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and their supporters form an uneasy coalition to say the least also makes domination by a monolithic Shiite bloc highly unlikely.

The Kurds, meanwhile, are said to harbor separatist ambitions. But their wiser leaders, such as Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, surely recognize the danger of breaking away as a landlocked statelet. That holds even if--or especially if--they succeed in gaining control over oil-rich Kirkuk, which powerful neighbors will covet. The Kurds are likely to fare best by retaining exactly the same status they have now, as a semi-autonomous region in federal Iraq.

The biggest challenge will be convincing Iraq's Sunni Arabs that the new federal arrangement will protect, not threaten, their interests. This should be obvious, since they are a minority and Shiites will dominate the central government in Baghdad. But Sunnis fear losing money from the oil fields, which will be concentrated in Shiite and Kurdish regions. Here Mr. Chalabi's proposed oil trust--which would guarantee all Iraqis equal, individual payments--could prove a solution.

The U.S., Britain, the Arab League and other outside powers will also have to tread carefully lest they encourage Iraq's Sunni parties to become thinly veiled front groups for terror--like Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland or the Palestine Liberation Organization. If these parties are allowed to believe that threatening or actually perpetrating violence will bring foreign pressure to accommodate Sunni demands, such a temptation will be irresistible. That's what President Talabani was getting at recently when he said "we cannot accept those who join the terrorists at night and stand on our side in the morning."

On the lessons-learned side, the election was final and definitive evidence of what a mistake it was for U.S. and British intelligence to bet all their chips on Mr. Allawi as the standard bearer for secularism in Iraq. We warned for a long time that the ex-Baathist would probably have a hard time winning the trust of many Iraqis traumatized by Saddam Hussein. The CIA's role here--and in simultaneously undermining Mr. Chalabi--is yet another of its Iraq intelligence failures.

Another lesson is that so-called proportional representation--in which voters choose lists of candidates, not individual representatives--is an inferior form of democracy that exacerbates exactly the sort of sectarian divisions that threaten Iraq. The proportional list was a United Nations preference backed by former Iraqi regent L. Paul Bremer, and it now looks to have been a mistake.

On balance, however, there are far more reasons for hope than despair in Iraq. A year ago few would have believed that the country would have held three successful votes and completed its transition to a legitimate and increasingly autonomous government. Washington's political role now is largely to stand back and let Iraqi leaders arrive at their own solutions, which will be the only durable kind.

Once a new government is formed, President Bush can make a long overdue visit to address the Iraqi parliament. Iraqis will want reassurance of continued American support and a chance to offer the thanks their liberator deserves.