"By any measure, this was an important milestone in Iraqi history," President Barack Obama said one day after its parliamentary election on March 7th.
For the most part any election is important to a democracy.
Obama also insisted in obvious fabrication, knowing who some Iraqi people have chosen, "In this process, the United States does not support particular candidates or coalitions. We support the right of the Iraqi people to choose their own leaders.”
But for how quickly he commented on the election, especially after being burned on Afghanistan, Obama was savvy to note, “All of these important steps will take time. Not weeks, but months... But like any sovereign, independent nation, Iraq must be free to chart its own course.”
Already laying the political groundwork for the inevitable question, one avoided by this Foreign Policy analysis. This is why we exist.
Now that the results are in, what will really happen next in Iraq? Defense Secretary Robert Gates had told reporters the day of the election, “All in all, a good day for the Iraqis and for all of us.”
We aren’t so sure.
Making brief mention of Muqtada al-Sadr and no reference to Obama’s August withdrawal deadline, Foreign Policy shadow analyst Kori Schake conclude:
“Many democracies, especially those that have been given their impetus by outside power, hold successful elections once or twice, then have their weak institutions perverted by ‘strong men.’”None of what’s argued is necessarily false. al-Maliki's course of action is of enormous consequence, yet Iraq’s democracy has a bigger problem than weak institutions. Its democracy is normal, inherently chaotic and potentially combustible when so many powerful actors compete for one throne.
“It is in Nouri al-Maliki's own hands whether he goes down in history as a courageous leader who piloted Iraq through the storm of sectarian violence and establishment of institutions to a peaceful and prosperous future, or as a craven politician who would bring Iraq's nascent democracy down in order to hold onto power he could not earn at the ballot box.”
And the two biggest question marks - Sadr and US troop levels - go unsaid, not a coincidence when they’re the two elephants in the room. But the Maliki riddle seems to be answered already, and this goes a long way in solving the others.
The Washington Post reports that yesterday election winner Ayad Allawi’s headquarters in Karbala was burnt down. Hussam Ali al-Maamachi, a member of Iraqiya in Karbala, where the bloc won one seat, was speechless, saying, "We didn't think they would go down to this level.”
"I think [Maliki will] use every means at his disposal, as he made pretty clear he would," said Gary Grappo, chief of the U.S. Embassy's political section, but not in the way he meant it.
Says the Washington Post, “Maliki appears to have begun using the legal system to block Allawi's rise. On Thursday, Iraq's supreme court interpreted an ambiguous clause in the constitution as saying that the largest bloc in parliament, with the right to form the next government, could be two or more groups that merged after the election. The opinion could allow Maliki's State of Law and a rival Shiite bloc to claim the right to form a government first. Allawi disputed the court's interpretation during the TV interview Saturday.”
Elsewhere four Sunni Muslim candidates who won parliamentary seats in Allawi’s coalition are being targeted by Iraqi security forces, according to interviews Saturday with relatives, Iraqi security forces and the U.S. military.
“One candidate who won more than 28,000 votes is being held incommunicado in a Baghdad jail, two other winners are on the run and the whereabouts of the fourth, a woman, are unknown,” reports McClatchy.
Oh, and Maliki refuses to accept the vote as official, saying, "We still insist for a manual recount of votes... We cannot accept these results while we suspect them.”
These developments portend to a hotly contested post-election power struggle.
Violence is inevitable with so many potential sources, so the real question is to what degree. Political intimidation - kidnappings and arrests - has already begun. Foreign insurgents, periodically reminding everyone of their presence, will start making real noise when US troops begin withdrawing. And full blown civil war remains possible given how the current situation is unfolding.
If Maliki continues his current behavior, insisting on a recount and harassing political opponents, his reaction will fuel Allawi’s secular/Sunni base to even higher popularity. Sunni militias could be quick to turn against al-Maliki, further weakening him and priming the opportunity for al-Sadr to align with Allawi.
It seems the smartest bet given al-Sadr and Maliki’s personal history.
"What the Iraqi National Alliance wants is to remove Maliki," said Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie, a political analyst in Baghdad. "If that happens, power would remain in the hands of the Shiites, and this would win the support of the rank and file of the Shiite population.”
If al-Sadr allied with Allawi they could split the religious spectrum and marginalize Maliki in the political system, a prospect Maliki is certain to resist. al-Sadr’s coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance, won 75 seats in the election, with Sadr’s personal officials reported over 40. Combined with Allawi’s 91 and they have three more seats than the necessary 163 majority.
But 55 of Iraqiya’s candidates are said to be under investigation and could be disqualified, feeding back into the cycle of violence. Sunnis are likelier to go on the attack, while al-Sadr is more in a defensive position.
"Sadrists are surprising in being slightly more numerous and better organized than people imagine," said Patrick Cockburn, a British journalist and author of Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Shia Insurgency in Iraq. “Why on earth should they disrupt the withdrawal since it’s what they wanted anyway?”
Indeed, the likeliest scenario appears to be al-Maliki triggering a Sunni backlash, in turn boosted by foreign militants, further stressing Iraqi security forces and leading to potential conflict with al-Sadr’s militia, which, despite his new grassroots, is still locked and ready.
This chain reaction might not target US troops directly, but President Obama could be taking a huge risk if he stays true to his withdrawal plan. Iraq’s election could take until June or July to sort itself out, like Afghanistan, and that’s without resurgent violence. What if Iraq, headed by a rogue Maliki, triggers another civil war?
Or what if Maliki ultimately cedes power to Allawi and Sadr? Will March 7th still qualify as good? Since 2003 the Sadrists have refused any contact with the American military or diplomats, while a source close to the cleric said Sadr was expected to be appointed ayatollah within three to seven years.
“His family is known to be geniuses,” said Nasser al-Rubaie, a Sadrist candidate, pointing out that Sadr’s father and his father’s cousin both qualified as ayatollahs while relatively young.
U.S. officials have insisted that they will not change plans to withdraw this summer nearly half of the 95,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq. Obama repeated his campaign promise while congratulating Iraq, saying, “And by the end of the next year, all US troops will be out of Iraq.”
But will America really allow Iraq to chart its own course if it drifts away from US interests or back into instability? What happens from here to August takes on particular significance for Obama as it affects his surge in Afghanistan.