Tensions high as elections get underway in Iraq

5 03 2010

by Patrick Vibert

Iraq is holding its parliamentary elections this weekend as violence threatens all who participate. The majority of the polling will be held Sunday, and the outcome will have far reaching implications for Iraq, Iran, and the United States.

Security personnel were given the day off Thursday so that they could vote and be available to work this weekend, when the rest of the country goes out to the polls. In perhaps an ominous sign of things to come, several soldiers and police officers were killed in explosion after they had voted.  A suicide bomber approached their truck and blew himself up in an apparent attempt to signal what would be in store for others who chose to vote.

These elections are critical to shaping  Iraq’s nascent post-Saddam future. Many are trying to sway the country in a direction that suits their interests, as it is far easier to forge steel while it’s still hot. Inside Iraq, there are multiple parties representing each of the sects, whether it be Shiite, Sunni, or Kurd. (Useful summaries of the major parties and their leaders can be found here and here.) Externally, Iran and the United States are each hoping for an acceptable election result that suits their interests.

Iraq has been under US occupation since 2003. Over that period of time, the country has seen its dictator toppled, witnessed extraordinary sectarian violence, and has achieved relatively stability. Though still dealing with sporadic violence, specifically suicide attacks, many areas of Iraq have developed some semblance of normalcy, with people traveling to and from work or the market.

The aforementioned suicide attacks are seen as a way to disrupt the daily lives of the Iraqis, as well as to warn people not to cooperate with the occupation, and to incite sectarian violence. Generally, the strategy is that someone from the group will wander into a crowd of Shias, say at a bus stop or mosque, and blow himself up to kill as many people as possible. Then someone from the Shia side does the same and the whole thing escalates from there. Recently though, the Shia have not been very keen to take the bait and the plan has been ineffective lately.

There are at least three reasons for such attacks. One is to punish those that are seen as collaborators with the Americans.  Two, the Shia are viewed as heretics by the more extreme Muslim schools, such as the Salafi school. And three, due to their demographic advantage, the Shia should emerge as the most powerful sect in post-Saddam Iraq, and the Sunnis are feeling marginalized in a country they have dominated for centuries.

This last reason is perhaps the most relevant, as it affects a large portion of Iraqis and not just the radical Salifists, who may or may not even be from Iraq. The Sunni are used to being the dominant sect in Iraq, but it looks like that era is coming to an end. Post-Saddam Iraq is a democracy, and with the Shia making up about two-thirds of the population, the country will likely be dominated by Shia influence in the future.

Since the fall of Saddam, the new government has undertaken a purge of “Saddam loyalists” led by Ahmed Chalabi and his Justice & Accountability Commission. However, Chalabi’s de-Baathification has affected mostly Sunni politicians, and his Commission is being seen by them as an effort to eliminated political competition. As a result, some of the coalitions are angry, feel marginalized, and face a tough challenge during this weekend’s elections.

Chilabi is turning into a politician of Machiavellian proportions. A former US ally, Chalabi spent a lot of time talking the US into invading Iraq. He fed US policymakers faulty information about WMD to play on post-911 fears and Bush Administration ambitions. Now some think he is working for the Iranians,  and may have been with them the whole time.

After all, who benefits the most from the removal of Saddam Hussein and the establishment of a Shiite-dominated Iraq? The answer is Iran, and this is certainly not what the US had in mind: a situation where America has greatly helped Iran expand its influence in the Persian Gulf, a preeminent region of US national interests. To counterbalance Iranian influence, the US is trying to shore-up the Sunnis as a viable political force.

The Baathists were secular, Sunni-Arab socialists, and with Mr. Chalabi’s purging of them he is essentially facilitating the purge of secular Sunnis from the political process, thereby attempting to force Iraqis to vote along sectarian lines, where the Shia will prevail due to their natural demographic edge. This gives the advantage this weekend to the Iran-backed Iraqi National Alliance, whose key actors include Muqtada Sadr and Ammar Hokim, both close allies of Tehran.

But a high level of Iranian influence in Iraq is not a given. Granted, both nations are largely Shia, but Iranians are of the Persian ethnicity and the Iraqis are Arab. While many in the West may gloss over this distinction, the Iraqis don’t. This difference was exacerbated by the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) which was long and bloody for both sides. At first it was thought that perhaps the Shia of Iraq would not fight the Shia of Iran, but that idea was quickly squashed and the conflict was fought on nationalist lines. Today, many Iraqis are weary of Persian influence in their country, and cross-sectarian nationalism seems to be gaining steam.

Many suffered under Saddam Hussein, but perhaps the Iraqis are comfortable with secularism in politics, having lived with it for 35 years of Baathist rule. It’s almost a necessity in Iraq, as an Islamic government would come at the expense of  at least one of the sects, most likely the Kurds and the Sunnis. And perhaps it is in Iran’s best interest that all groups be represented in the “new” Iraq, because that would hopefully mean peace and stability, which in turn would mean the hastened end of the US occupation.

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