Will Iran Win Iraq's Election?

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Iraqis gather around a burning Iraqi National Guard's vehicle in Mosul after it was hit by a roadside bomb

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It would be wrong, however, to measure Iranian influence by the extent to which a new government in Iraq emulates Iran's example — U.S. influence in the Arab world, after all, is strongest in regimes whose domestic political arrangements can hardly be likened to America's. Tehran's priority is to ensure that Iraq's long marginalized Shiite majority becomes the dominant voice in Baghdad, believing that their voice will be friendlier toward Tehran. Iraq has long been viewed as a kind of pan-Arab frontline against Persian influence, and it was on that basis that even the likes of Saudi Arabia and Jordan backed Saddam's regime against Iran in their eight-year war. Iran's more immediate concern may be to avoid seeing Iraq turned into a platform for new "regime-change" initiatives against the "Axis of Evil" by Washington's hawks. To that end, Tehran is more likely to back a broad-based Shiite political movement capable of prevailing in elections, rather than to insist on an ideological rigidity. Iran has been the foremost advocate among Iraq's neighbors of early democratic elections, precisely because it recognized that they represent an opportunity to shift Iraq's geopolitical posture towards a friendlier disposition.

That has some Iraqi politicians, and leaders of neighboring countries, warning of an Iranian power-grab at the ballot box. Whether or not those tactics prove effective in taking votes away from the UIA remains to be seen, although they do suggest that the election season may see a sharpening not only of insurgent violence, but also inter-communal and sectarian tensions.

No party discipline

If the election itself sees a rise in both insurgent violence and communal tensions, the specifics of Iraq's electoral arrangements create a basis for a measure of instability within the National Assembly, also. The election is being contested on the basis of lists put forward by each party or coalition, which will be allowed to seat the number of its candidates, in descending order on its list, proportionate to the number of votes it wins. For example, if a party or coalition wins 20 percent of the nationwide vote, it will be allocated 55 of the 275 seats in the Assembly, which will be filled by the first 55 names on the list their party submitted to the Iraqi Electoral Commission by last Wednesday. Everything from the fact that they are not elected by district to the broad nature of the coalition lists — the UIA's list includes not only members of a number of political parties, but also numerous independents — conspires to create a freedom from party discipline among those who make it into the assembly. There’s no obligation to dance with them what brung ya, and the political bargaining within the assembly may be even more intense than that which preceded the election.

Curiously enough, one of the points of consensus among a wide swathe of Iraqi voters may be the demand for the U.S.-led coalition forces to leave. It has long been championed by even the moderate Shiite leadership, who challenged Moqtada Sadr's approach of violent confrontation with U.S. forces by insisting that winning the election remains the most effective route for ending the U.S. troop presence. A nationwide Gallup poll conducted in Iraq in April found 80 percent of Iraqis supporting the demand that the U.S. leaves immediately after the election. Even Prime Minister Allawi — who owes his current job, principally, to the Bush administration — promised to set a timetable for the withdrawal of coalition troops as one of his primary election promises. But Allawi made such a withdrawal conditional on building the capacity of the Iraqi security forces. And it may be years yet before Iraq has armed forces capable both of maintaining domestic security and protecting the country's borders. Still, now that Iraqis are invited, in their millions, to participate directly for the first time in shaping the future of their country, that future may be harder than ever to predict.

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