Iraq Votes. But Will It Matter?

Joel Wing outlines the likely results of yesterday’s general election in Iraq:

Most Iraq watchers now seem to believe that the prime minister [Nouri al-Maliki] will get the most seats in parliament, and then go through a very long process of negotiations that could drag out for up to a year, and ensure himself another four years in office. The premier is hoping that his Shiite base will come out for him out of fear of the growing insurgency, and give him a plurality of votes. He will then be able to play upon the splits within the Sunni parties to ally with Deputy Premier Salah al-Mutlaq. If that gives him momentum the history of Iraqi politics is for the other parties to jump on board to assure themselves positions within the new government.

An alternative scenario could play out however. Last year ISCI was able to cut into Maliki’s base, and are hoping to repeat that again. It has portrayed itself as a nationalist party that has the support of the religious establishment in Najaf. The Sadrists’ Ahrar bloc believes that it can maintain its alliance with the Supreme Council that it forged in the 2013 elections. If they get anything near the number of seats of Maliki it will be a free for all for to create the majority necessary for a new government.

Bob Dreyfuss recounts how Maliki has cemented himself in power since the last election:

Back in 2010, when an opposition party led by Ayad Allawi—a wily, nonsectarian, secular Shiite politician with a largely Sunni base—won the biggest share of the vote, both the United States and Iran weighed in to prop up Maliki and ensure that he was able to form a government that eventually excluded Allawi. A year later, in 2011, the remaining American troops departed, and within days Maliki went to war against Sunni politicians, the Sunni establishment and others who opposed his authoritarian style.

Maliki used spurious charges of terrorism against top politicos, including the Sunni vice president of Iraq, who was forced to flee for his life. Following that, Maliki cracked down viciously on peaceful, Arab Spring–style protests in Anbar, killing hundreds and detaining thousands. …

So, it’s no wonder that the Iraqi insurgency that erupted after 2003 is back. This time, it’s enhanced by the chaos in Syria, where a largely Sunni army of Islamist fanatics and rag-tag rebels tied to Al Qaeda and ISIS are battling the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Cities such as Ramadi and Fallujah have turned into strongholds of the insurgency, and the anti-Maliki radicals have deployed waves of suicide bombers and car bomb experts to slaughter thousands of Shiite civilians in markets, public squares and other soft targets. They’ve also carried out a lethal pattern of assassinations of moderate and establishment Sunnis outside Baghdad.

Jay Ulfelder doubts the polls will stem the rising tide of violence:

Iraq is already suffering mass atrocities of its own at the hands of insurgent groups who routinely kill large numbers of civilians in indiscriminate attacks, every one of which would stun American or European publics if it happened there. According to the widely respected Iraq Body Count project, the pace of civilian killings in Iraq accelerated sharply in July 2013 after a several-year lull of sorts in which “only” a few hundred civilians were dying from violence each month. Since the middle of last year, the civilian toll has averaged more than 1,000 fatalities per month. That’s well off the pace of 2006-2007, the peak period of civilian casualties under Coalition occupation, but it’s still an astonishing level of violence. …

In theory, elections are supposed to be a brake on this process, giving rival factions opportunities to compete for power and influence state policy in nonviolent ways. In practice, this often isn’t the case. Instead, Iraq appears to be following the more conventional path in which election winners focus on consolidating their own power instead of governing well, and excluded factions seek other means to advance their interests.

Zalmay Khalilzad, who also expects Maliki to remain in power, addresses how the US should respond:

A new leader, untainted by a record of distrust and broken deals, could offer Iraq a promising way forward. A U.S. push to oust Maliki, however, would be risky. Relations between Washington and Kabul deteriorated sharply after Afghan president Hamid Karzai won re-election over the Obama Administration’s opposition. The experience with Maliki, moreover, shows that U.S. support for the winning candidate does not necessarily translate into reliable governance. …

Instead of relying on preferred Iraqi leaders, the Obama Administration should clearly articulate the program of reform it wants implemented during the process of government formation. Iraq’s constitution, which emphasizes federalism and decentralization of power, provides a roadmap for reform. Continued effort at monopolization of power by a majoritarian central government could incite a Kurdish push for sovereignty, as well as increased violence among Iraq’s Sunni population. Some Sunni leaders, after opposing federalism in the years after Saddam’s overthrow, now seek recognition of its provinces as federal regions.