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Iraq: An Election of Conflicting Interests

Iraq: An Election of Conflicting Interests

Friday, 23 February, 2018 - 07:30
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

Almost 15 years after the war that ended Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq, the circumstances that led to it and the way it was conducted remain controversial. However, even the most ardent opponents of the war admit that the end of dictatorship in Baghdad gave Iraq an opportunity to seek a different, hopefully better, future which might include democratization.

While it is true that democracy cannot be imposed by force it is equally true that force could be used to remove barriers to democracy as was the case in Germany, Italy and Japan after the Second World War.

In that context the fact that since 2003 Iraq has held several free and fair elections and referendums is cited as proof that anti-democracy barriers erected by successive despotic regimes in Baghdad may have been removed.

However, elections alone, even when free and fair, do not amount to democratization.

The true guarantor of a democratic system is an understanding, often implicit, on a set of rules regarding the acquisition and exercise of political power.

I believe that over the past 15 years Iraq has shaped such a guarantee.

In its simplest expression, that guarantee consists of a consensus transcending sectarian, ethnic and partisan divisions, according to which power is acquired through elections and exercised through institutions.

To the blasé public in Western democracies this may not sound much. But to people who had always been treated as objects in their own history, it is quite a big deal.

Because Iraqi democracy is still young and fragile every election in that country must be handled with extra care.

The next general election requires even more careful consideration and preparation. And that may mean postponing it until the optimum conditions are established.

There are several reasons for this.

The first is that the consensus that marked all post-liberation elections has been shaken.

The abortive Kurdish independence referendum produced one fracture while the four-way split in Shi’ite ranks produced another.

The unanimity that marked previous elections as far as dates and modalities were concerned is no longer in place.

Secondly, the logistical and material conditions needed for free and fair elections may not be available in significant chunks of the country.

The four provinces that bore the brunt of the war against successive terrorist groups, the latest being ISIS, lack the infrastructure for proper campaigning not to mention establishing voter registers, setting up polling stations, and ensuring adequate supervision of voting.

According to the United Nations the fight against ISIS has produced some 2.8 million displaced persons whose electoral status cannot be determined before May 12, the date fixed by the Iraqi parliament last week.

There is also the problem of the so-called “disputed areas” contested by ethnic Kurds, Turkmans, Christians, Shi’ites and Sunni-Arab communities.

Another problem concerns the presence of numerous armed groups of different religions, sects and ethnic background in eight of the 18 provinces.

In some places, Mosul for example, unofficial control exercised by these groups in the absence of the regular army and government police could render campaigning, voting and the counting of votes problematic.

In some places, notably the nine provinces where Shi’ites form a majority, militias such as the Popular Mobilization Forces, believed to be controlled by Iran, operate as political parties. That, however, is against the Iraqi Election law which makes it clear that any member of the military wishing to contest an election must first quit his military position.

Finally, the most important argument in favor of postponement is the growing trend away from sectarian politics with the emphasis shifting away from ethnic and religious concepts to the all-inclusive concept of Uruqa (Iraqi-ness).

Encouraging moves in that direction are already under way, leading to hopes that a majority of Iraqi political parties and groups may be moving away from the sectarian system of sharing parliamentary seats introduced under Paul Bremmer, the American “Pasha”, after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

However, such a process requires more time to produce lasting results.

While several prominent Shi’ite political leaders, among them former Premier Nuri al-Maliki, Ammar al-Hakim of the National Hikma (Wisdom) group and Muqtada Sadr, reject any postponement of the election, the buzz from Najaf is that the Marja’iyah (Shi’ite clerical leadership) would not oppose postponement in the context of a clear plan to ensure the elections are safe, fair and free.

I also have the feeling that postponement, if shaped through consensus in the context of fading out sectarian and ethnic divides, would win support from all the four Kurdish parties still shaken by the aftershocks of the abortive referendum.

What I find strange is that the Trump administration in Washington and the Khomeinist establishment in Tehran are dancing a pas-de-deux in support of May 12 as the date for election.

The US maintains some 6,000 troops in Iraq, stationed in eight bases in four provinces. The plan is to increase that number to 10,000 and enlarge two of the facilities into permanent bases complementing, and if necessary, replacing the Incirlik super-base in Turkey.

Building such a major strategic presence in the heart of the Middle East would require explicit support from an Iraqi government emerging from credible elections.

Contrary to what the Trump administration seems to think, US interests are not best served by hastily held elections the results of which may be contested by significant segments of Iraqi opinion.

For its part Iran is worried that, no longer dependent on sectarian electoral arithmetic, a future Baghdad government may seek to curtail Tehran’s political and military presence in Iraq.

Managing relations with Iraq is of crucial importance for Iran under any regime.

A united and strong Iraq could emerge as a rival or even a threat to Iran. A democratic Iraq could become a tempting model for Iran where Shi’ites also form a majority. A weak Iraq could become fertile ground for Arab Sunni armed groups dedicated to sectarian “jihad.”

Thus, what Tehran leaders want is a divided Iraq that is neither too strong nor too weak and thus obliged to depend on Iran. An election that does not make Iraq more united and thus stronger would suit Tehran’s interest.

What Iraqis need to ask is what suits their own national interests.

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