National Review Online
Monday, February 2, 2009
Iraq held provincial elections in an environment of calm that would have been unimaginable two years ago. That the elections came off in such an orderly, peaceful manner is further testament to the success of the surge and suggests that the change American efforts have achieved in Iraq’s security environment may be sustainable over the long run.
We won’t know the final results of the elections for weeks, but early reports are that Sunni and Shiite secular parties have fared relatively better than their religious counterparts. If this is the case, it will be a step toward empowering Iraqis locked out of the current power structure and making Iraqi politics more truly representative.
In Sunni areas, the Iraqi Islamic party appears to have lost out to new tribal parties that arose in the aftermath of the “Awakening,” the Iraqi revolt against al-Qaeda. If these parties gained, it will give representation to the Sunni players initially opposed to the U.S. occupation who swung our way as the Awakening swept the country—but who did not gain the voice they thought they deserved in representative institutions. In unstable Nineveh Province, which is riven by strife between Arabs and Kurds, the Sunnis may have won a majority on the provincial council. This important development would help give them the clout to curb Kurdish expansionism without resort to the insurgency, which is still alive in places like Mosul and attempts to capitalize on Sunni resentment of the encroachments of the Kurds.
In the south, the party list of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to have eaten into the support of Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the major Shiite religious party. Maliki’s political position has strengthened with his successful crackdown on the militias over the last year and his shrewd outreach to tribes in the south. Meanwhile, the political forces of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have lost ground. All this creates the possibility that Maliki will be able to form a new political coalition in advance of national elections later this year, one that is less dependent on the Supreme Council and instead relies more on the new, more practical political players coming to the fore in the provinces.
A scrambling—and refreshing—of Iraqi politics is welcome in theory, but shifts in power carry the potential for renewed violence. That’s why American troops—the most politically neutral and proficient security forces in the country—remain vitally important. The danger is that the same people who wanted to declare defeat and leave now want to declare victory and leave, although they remain allergic to the word “victory.”
The United States must continue to provide the basis of security in Iraq, even if there has been extraordinary progress in the country. Sunnis who had boycotted the 2005 election participated in this one, and, for the first time, Iraqis voted not just for an anonymous party list but for individual candidates. All of this happened in a country that only a few years ago suffered under one of the most repressive political systems on earth. Once again, Iraqis proudly brandished their ink-stained fingers after voting. May it become a national tradition.