Reporting on the atmosphere in Iraq before tomorrow’s important provincial elections — “perhaps the most competitive election in the country’s history” — Anthony Shadid cautions that they “are by no means a panacea.”
In some ways, they have revealed a landscape perhaps more precarious than the one the United States inherited in 2003. Tribes, with archaic traditions, have become kingmakers, and Islamist parties, despite their unpopularity, have proved a singular ability to mobilize resources and followers. Some worry about the onset of warlords. Others worry about the Kurdish-Arab frontier, where borders with an autonomous Kurdish region have yet to be drawn. In the province around the disputed city of Kirkuk, the vote has been postponed indefinitely.
As Brian Katulis, Marc Lynch and Peter Juul wrote in Iraq’s Political Transition After the Surge, Iraq’s political factions remain at loggerheads over key aspects of the Iraqi state, centralism vs. federalism, sectarianism vs. secularism. We should not expect tomorrow’s elections to provide answers as much as clarify the questions.
The International Crisis Group also has a typically excellent report examining the major issues at play. While recognizing that “the elections inevitably will have severe shortcomings,” ICG notes that they “mark a remarkable transition.”
In the past four years, politics have evolved from a violent conflict focused largely on the capital to an essentially democratic contest over positions and institutions, including at the local level. Former confessional blocs are fraying, as sectarianism is increasingly challenged by more nationalist sentiment and promises of better governance by political actors seeking to capture the public mood. Competition between communities is joined by competition within them. Violence persists in Baghdad and elsewhere, often fierce and ruthless; the past few weeks alone have witnessed incidents -– targeted killings, bombings and intimidation –- that in one way or another are designed to influence the vote. But, for now at least, virtually all major players, including those that boycotted the polls in 2005, have accepted the principle of elections and fully thrown themselves into electoral battle.
In our recent report, The Fractured Shia of Iraq, Peter Juul and I described some of the fault lines within Iraq’s Shia religious community, and how, as with Iraq’s various factions more generally, the elections could significantly redraw these lines.
While it’s important not to grant any credence to the conservative argument that the improved security conditions in Iraq represent a vindication of George W. Bush’s Iraq policy — there is no remotely plausible moral or political calculus by which the costs, human and otherwise, of this war do not far outweigh its benefits — it’s also important to recognize the significance of Iraq’s new politics, both for Iraqis themselves and potentially for the future of the United States’ relationship with the region. The Obama administration faces serious challenges in the Middle East, many of them created or exacerbated by the Iraq war, but helping to facilitate the emergence of a stable and democratic Iraq is key to meeting those challenges.