| Ander Nieuws week 8 / nieuwe oorlog 2009 |
Ballots over Baghdad

Early results from provincial elections may reveal the shape of post-occupation Iraq – if the losers accept them, Patrick Cockburn writes.
The National (VAE)
February 06. 2009
Patrick Cockburn
The future political landscape of Iraq is becoming clearer as the first results come in from the Iraqi provincial election. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Dawa party appear to have won a sweeping victory as Iraqi voters opt for a strong state to provide security and for secular nationalism rather than the clergy-dominated parties that triumphed in local and parliamentary elections in 2005.
The last six years in Iraq have seen many false dawns presented as signs of progress towards peace and democracy. The election in January 2005 was given a rapturous welcome by Washington and the international media, but it was the prologue to a vicious sectarian civil war because the Sunni community did not accept the legitimacy of the poll.
The two elections are not directly comparable: this vote was for provincial councils alone, while in January 2005 the parliament was elected at the same time. The big difference in 2009 is that all the players say they accept the rules of the game going into the election, though it is not at all clear if they will do so if they lose. Already Ahmed Abu Risha, the leader of the Anbar Salvation Conference, is calling foul after his reported defeat and vowing to make this vast and overwhelmingly Sunni province look "like Darfur".
For all this, Maliki has evidently done better than expected, and will try to repeat his success in the parliamentary vote. In important provinces his opponents are accepting that they have lost. In Basra the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the largest Shia party, which has controlled nine of the 11 Shia provinces of southern Iraq for four years, said that in his city Dawa had won 50 per cent of the vote and ISCI only 20 per cent. "We controlled most of the provinces in the south," explained an ISCI member of parliament, "so we were blamed for whatever went wrong there."
A senior follower of Muqtada al Sadr’s movement of the Shia poor, which did not stand itself but supported sympathetic independents, confirmed this. "The first results of the elections show that the list of Maliki has swept away the other lists especially in Sadr City and some southern provinces," he said. "This is because the performance of other parties in power was bad. This made the people vote for Maliki. They are just trying to satisfy the minimum demands of life, which is security, and Maliki succeeded in supplying it." In Sadr City, whose 2.5 million impoverished people live in what is virtually a twin city to Baghdad, the walls were for the first time covered with more posters of Maliki than of Muqtada.
The ISCI and Sadrist leaders are probably correct in their explanation of Maliki’s success. For five years Iraqis have been yearning for personal security – and for jobs and an adequate supply of electricity, clean water and sewage disposal. Baghdad is still one of the world’s most dangerous cities, with daily assassinations and bombings, but it is a great deal better than it was during the terrible sectarian civil war of 2005-7. People largely live in Sunni or Shia enclaves protected by high concrete blast walls, and the memory of past slaughter is still vivid in their minds. But Iraqis no longer feel the stark terror of two years ago every time they pass a checkpoint – where once they might have been hauled out of a car or bus and tortured and killed because they were carrying the wrong ID card. Things may be better, but this does not mean they are good. The low turnout of 51 per cent – and possibly only 40 per cent in Baghdad – may imply that many Iraqis who believe their leaders are only interested in feathering their own nests did not bother to vote.
The improvement in security has been exaggerated, particularly in America, but the situation has indeed improved. The number of people murdered in January was 199, the lowest figure since April 2003. Maliki and his Dawa party get the credit for this, though the supply of electricity and water remains poor.
But there is something more at work here than one political party, in this case Dawa, supplanting others such as ISCI. The Iraqi state is gradually being reborn. Once one of the most efficient in the Middle East, it decayed after 1980 because of the Iran-Iraq war, defeat in Kuwait in 1991, the Shia and Kurdish uprisings in the same year, and the 13 long crushing years of UN sanctions. But unlike in Afghanistan, Iraqis know they once had an effective state – and Maliki’s supporters believe he is reviving it.
Maliki is a symbol as well as the architect of returning state power, and his position is reminiscent of that of Vladimir Putin at the time of his ascent. Putin won popular support because he was seen as a competent leader who was going to end the weakness and anarchy of the Yeltsin era. Russians embraced Putin’s promise to fight the Chechens and stand up for Russia abroad while controlling the oligarchs and returning power to the Kremlin. Many Iraqis now feel much as the Russians did 10 years ago.
Maliki’s career has had a somewhat different trajectory from Putin: for two years after he became prime minister of Iraq he had to manoeuvre between the Americans, the Sadrists, ISCI and the Kurds. He held a weak hand and several times his supposed allies came close to replacing him, but they could not agree on who his replacement should be. The turning point for Maliki came in March and April last year, when he moved against the Mahdi Army in Basra and Baghdad. The Americans had no choice but to support him. But he also refused to sign a new security agreement with the US without a timetable for a troop withdrawal. Step-by-step Bush was pushed back.
In the second half of last year Maliki moved against the Kurds by sending Arab forces into Mosul and contesting control of the Kurdish corner of Diyala province around the town of Khanaqin. His reputation as a nonsectarian nationalist was established. This is a little surprising because his small Dawa party was founded in the late 1950s as the Shia religious party. Dawa now presents itself as more secular; it is not led by clergy, though the great majority of its supporters are Shia.
ISCI is now contending that its election losses were not as bad as first appeared, but it has clearly lost ground. This is scarcely surprising: in 2005 it took over local councils since it had few rivals for the Shia vote. But ISCI has always suffered from its close relationship to Iran, where it was founded in 1982, and from its previously cosy relationship with the US. It held power at a time when Iraqis saw their local governors as little better than gangsters, and it entered this week’s election without the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, who backed the party in 2005.
The last five years in Iraq have done much to discredit religious parties, just as Saddam Hussein discredited secularism. This anticlericalism is stronger in the cities than the countryside and the success of secular and nationalist candidates may also reflect the Shia religious hierarchy reducing their political involvement. Voters blame them for fomenting the religious civil war, and they no longer benefit from their earlier opposition to Saddam. In the January 2005 election Iyad Allawi, then prime minister, put himself forward as a nonsectarian nationalist candidate. Though he controlled the state machinery and had massive support from the Americans, he did badly at the polls. This time round he has reportedly done well in Shia Basra and Sunni Tikrit. Secularism is now an easier sell than it used to be.
Along with ISCI the other big casualty of the election is likely to be the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), who once saw themselves as the voice of the Sunni community. This was always highly dubious, but like ISCI, they benefited from having stood for election in 2005 when the great majority of Sunni voters boycotted the poll. In Mosul, the largest Sunni-majority city, al Hadba, a nationalist and tribal movement led by Atheel al Nujaifi, is predicted to win handsomely over the IIP among the Sunni Arabs. But Iraq is such a mosaic of different interests that few generalisations hold for the entire country. In Anbar there have been furious accusations of ballot rigging by the Iraqi Awakening Conference against the IIP and threats of armed insurrection. This may happen, though the Awakening movement has not followed through on past threats, possibly because its members are on the government payroll.
The real outcome of the election will not be clear until it is known if the losers accept that they have lost. Voters outside Kurdistan evidently want a centralised state, though the low turnout may mean that many see their government as less an administration than a racket. The Shia-Kurdish alliance will continue to rule, but the Shia leaders in charge may be more nationalist and secular and less religious and sectarian.
A danger is that Maliki will be tempted to overplay his hand. None of the opponents who tried to get rid of him a year ago have gone out of business. Iraqis often claim they want a strong leader because they expect him to act against their enemies. When he acts against them instead they often react angrily and violently. "Remember," said an Iraqi doctor to me just after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, "even Saddam Hussein found it difficult to rule this country."
Patrick Cockburn is foreign correspondent for The Independent and the author of Muqtada al Sadr and the Fall of Iraq.
© Copyright of Abu Dhabi Media Company FZLLC.
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| Ander Nieuws week 8 / nieuwe oorlog 2009 |