Blogged Down in Iraq

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So, Who Won?

Well, if you hear President Bush tell it, Sunday's vote was a massive vindication of his grand plan to free the world of tyranny. In a similar vein, his chief ally, Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, proclaimed the vote “a blow right to the heart of the global terrorism that threatens destruction not just in Iraq but in Britain and virtually every major country around the world." Although Bush and Blair's sentiment was echoed by interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, such language was rarer among Iraqi voters, who tended to see the election as the fruit of their own efforts, most notably those of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose interventions forced the U.S. to scrap its own plan for a handpicked government to write the new constitution and instead accept Sistani's demand for elections. Indeed, many voters at the polls saw voting as a means of ending “the occupation,” the collective noun by which many Iraqis — even cabinet ministers — refer to the U.S. presence. In other words, Iraqi voters didn't necessarily see themselves as marching in President Bush's freedom parade; many saw themselves voting to ask it to leave town.

Iraq FAQ
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A Look at the Candidates
Who's on the ballot, and who are the front-runners

The Opponents
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And what next?

Although it may be a week before the results are published, reporters and exit pollsters in Iraq are suggesting that, as expected, the United Iraqi Alliance list backed by Ayatollah Sistani won the largest share of the vote. But don't rush to toss interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi into the trashcan of history just yet: the Shiite parties' ability to translate a UIA win into effective political power depends not only on the scale of their victory, but also on their ability to maintain a strictly disciplined united front, and to reach out and forge agreements with minority parties.

But translating an electoral majority, or plurality, into effective power depends on two things — holding together a coalition that has its own significant internal fissures, and creating an effective alliance with other parties to give it the two thirds majority of Assembly votes needed to choose the next Iraqi leadership. The UIA is a big tent created precisely to avoid splitting the Shiite vote. But the very diversity of opinion it embraces, from such large traditional Shiite parties as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa party to wild card elements such as former Pentagon favorite Ahmed Chalabi and supporters of radical firebrand Moqtada Sadr, suggests there are plenty of fissures in the UIA coalition that could come into play in a new assembly. Moreover, the rules governing the new Assembly and government are such that even if he finishes a distant second, Prime Minister Allawi may yet find plenty of room for maneuver. There's no effective party discipline binding legislators once taken the seats in the Assembly guaranteed by their positions on their coalition's election lists filed in December. The only thing restraining an individual or faction elected on the UIA list from crossing the floor to side with Allawi is the prospect of facing the electorate again at some point in the future — assuming, of course, that in Iraq's next election, the candidates won't be campaigning in ski masks. (The identity of the vast majority of those standing in Sunday's election was kept secret for security reasons.)

The second challenge for the UIA is attracting minority support, with the Kurds being the prize on the assumption that they would have won close to 20 percent of the vote. The problem is that most Kurds don't really want to be part of Iraq at all, and are forced by realpolitik to accept affiliation with Baghdad, meaning that they seek the loosest possible federation for a new Iraqi national state, with plenty of minority veto safeguards. But Grand Ayatollah Sistani is strongly opposed to accommodating Kurdish aspirations at the expense of the central state, and if Allawi's showing gives him enough seats in the Assembly, the Kurdish leaders may be more inclined to throw their support behind him. And then there's the challenge for the Shiite alliance of finding terms for accommodating the Sunnis in the constitution-making process. The last thing the UIA can afford is to face a coalition of moderate, secular Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis who between them can muster around 40 percent of Assembly votes, because that would give Allawi an effective filibuster with which to leverage the process.

The election, for those who participated, was an unprecedented exercise in mass democracy, flawed as it was. But it will usher in a season of opaque horse-trading among Iraq's new political class, while those who overcame their fears to express their hopes at the ballot box anxiously await results. And the wildcard elements outside the Assembly — from the insurgency whose planners are no doubt simply waiting for the election-weekend ban on all vehicle traffic to be lifted in order to launch a new wave of car bombings, to the radical Shiite populist Moqtada Sadr who kept a low profile over the election period but retains substantial support among restive Shiite urban youth — will no doubt be looking for opportunities to pursue their own agendas.

January 28, 2.30pm

Allawi's fate? We won't know for weeks

As insurgents continue to deliver on their promise to bathe Iraq's election in blood, the pollsters of the International Republican Institute, whose board members include various GOP luminaries, are talking up U.S.-appointed prime minister Iyad Allawi's chances of beating the odds and staying in office. The reason? The strong clerical influence in the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance list may well be alienating more secular Shiites. Still, the more widely held view is that the best Allawi can hope for is a good second-place showing behind the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance list backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. But the Guardian notes even a second-place finish could see Allawi keep the prime minister's job. That's because some Shiite leaders are now suggesting it may be a poisoned chalice, and that their own leaders should only be put forward once a new constitution is in place and the U.S. is on the way out. Incumbency has certainly proven to be a burden for the Shiite parties in Basra, where popular discontent at their failure to provide basic services appears to be turning voters against the Shiite list.

Allawi's finance minister, Adel Abdel-Mahdi, who is considered a candidate for prime minister on the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance list says that if his coalition, as expected, wins a dominant share of the vote, the best Allawi can hope for is to remain a cabinet minister. Note to readers: Even once the final election results are known, which may be a week or more from Sunday, Allawi's fate will be far from clear. The new government will be created through a series of steps that begins with the new National Assembly appointing a three-person presidential council. For Americans, it's the equivalent of envisaging an electoral college in which you have no idea of who the electors are, or who they're going to choose once they're elected — or even of whom the candidates might be. In other words, it may be a month or more of backroom bargaining before we know the identity of Iraq's new government.

Yankee go home?

President Bush may or may not have had the International Republican Institute's predictions in mind when he told the New York Times that those "who will presumably be in a position of responsibility after these elections" have indicated that they want American troops to stay in Iraq after the election. He did, however, indicate that if the new government asks the U.S. to leave, it will comply.

Whether or not the Iraqis will ask the U.S. to leave remains something of a mystery. The major Iraqi coalitions appear to be sending mixed messages, telling the Americans that they're needed to maintain security, but telling Iraqi voters that they have a plan to get the Americans out. Allawi made clear this week that his plan was to ask them to leave only when Iraqi security forces are ready to assume responsibility. But as the Economist points out, that would mean U.S. troops remaining in Iraq for years yet. "The Iraqi forces are utterly feeble," the magazine notes. "At present, only some 5,000 of them are a match for the insurgents; perhaps as many as 12,000 are fairly self-sufficient. Most of the rest are unmotivated, unreliable, ill-trained, ill-equipped, prone to desertion, even ready to switch sides. If the Americans left today, they would be thrashed."

January 27, 2005

Flashpoint Kirkuk

Much of the discussion of post-election challenges in Iraq has focused on bringing in the Sunnis, the majority of whom are expected to stay away from the polls on January 30. That's hardly surprising given the scale of the Sunni insurgency, which appears to grow despite the counterinsurgency efforts of 150,000 U.S. troops there. In the past month alone, as much as two thirds of the population has seen insurgent attacks in the districts in which they live; more than half of the population lives in districts that have seen attacks on average every third day.

All that bloodshed has has distracted attention away from a looming crisis that may open a new front of conflict in the wake of the election. Turkey's military has given notice of its intention to challenge the election's outcome in Kirkuk, the oil-rich northern city coveted by Kurdish nationalists as the future capital of a Kurdish state. Turkey is unhappy that former Kurdish residents of the city forcibly relocated by Saddam Hussein and replaced by Arab Iraqis two decades ago will be allowed to vote in Kirkuk. Turkey — as well as leaders of the city's ethnic Turcoman and Arab populations — fear this will decisively tip the electoral balance to give the Kurds control over the contested city. The Turkish military is warning, bluntly, that it would deem Kurdish control of Kirkuk unacceptable, and that it might view such an outcome as grounds to intervene. These are no idle threats, warn the respected mediators of the International Crisis Group, who warn that the situation is already at boiling point and an outbreak of hostilities that draws in Turkey could create a new crisis for the U.S. in Iraq. Indeed, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the U.S. would "pay the bill" for the disastrous consequences he warned would follow a Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk. The Economist sees the looming crisis over Kirkuk as another symptom of the trend of mainstream Kurdish political opinion toward a collision course with Bagdhdad.

January 26, 2005

A very secret ballot

Courage, sometimes, must be tempered with wisdom. That's the advice to candidates from one of the key Shiite parties contesting Iraq's election, in which the vast majority of the more than 7,000 brave souls who have put their names forward as candidates have, nonetheless, kept that fact a secret. Britain's Telegraph reports that leaders of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq have warned their party's candidates to keep their identity secret, avoid public places and stay home as much as possible.

It's not only the identity of most of the candidates that remains hidden in Iraq five days ahead of polling; the location of many polling stations still remains a mystery — hardly surprising, since some of those that have been announced have been bombed by insurgents.

The security environment is such that even some government officials are not exactly optimistic about the turnout. Electricity Minister Ayham al-Samarrai, for example, predicts that the national turnout would be around 25 percent of eligible voters. The insurgent threat has also compelled the authorities to adopt strict security measures, such as banning all non-official vehicles from the roads on election day, that may depress turnout.

The more than one million eligible Iraqis living abroad, however, have nothing to fear from the insurgency. So reports of a low turnout among Iraqi exiles may be explained by other factors. As few as 10 percent of Iraqis living in the U.S. are expected to vote, and the worldwide total among exiles may not exceed 25 percent in the 14 countries where voting has been arranged. Analysts blame the logistical difficulties of registering and voting, and mixed feelings among exiles about the poll.

Insurgents Buoyant

The strike rate of the insurgency in the run-up to the election suggests that despite such large-scale U.S. military operations as the recapture of Fallujah, Iraq's insurgency continues to grow in size, scale and momentum. Where the Bush administration once dismissed the insurgents as "Baathist bitter-enders" and "foreign terrorists" who would be crushed by the U.S. and its Iraqi allies, it is now more common for U.S. officers to admit they are unlikely to defeat the insurgency any time soon. Henry Kissinger once famously noted that while a counterinsurgency campaign wins only when by eliminating the insurgents, the insurgents win by simply surviving, i.e. by not losing. And by the measure established by Kissinger, Iraq's insurgents may be doing a lot better than their enemies.

Withdrawing U.S. Troops?

The call for a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal had been an election promise shared by some of the major contenders in Iraq's election until about a week ago. This week, however, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi made clear that it would be reckless to call for U.S. troops to leave before Iraqi forces were ready to fight the insurgency. Now, Knight Ridder's Hannah Allam reports that the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance may now be retreating from its own campaign promise to call for U.S. withdrawal, adding a similar qualifier to the one touted by Allawi. She speculates that a combination of U.S. pressure and the reality of the insurgency's capabilities versus the limited abilities of Iraqi security forces has prompted the change. The issue may yet be revisited, however. On the one hand, a U.S. pullout would leave a new government at the mercy of an insurgency growing in size and capability. On the other hand, as Juan Cole notes, key leaders of the UIA see a U.S. withdrawal as essential. One Sistani aide, for example, urged the Sunnis to participate on the grounds that an elected government would have "the ability to demand that the Occupying powers depart from Iraq, supporting this stance by their popular legitimacy." Such a call may yet figure in attempts by a new government to broker a political settlement with the nationalist component of the insurgency.

Meantime, the loss of 36 U.S. soldiers in a single day on Tuesday, including 31 aboard a helicopter that crashed in western Iraq, underscores the mounting cost of a combat mission whose demands on American lives and treasure continue to grow, with the Bush administration set to ask a deficit-wary Congress for a further $80 billion to finance the war.