Iraqi woman votes (AP)"Iraq is one important piece in a larger puzzle of the broader Middle East—and mitigating the risks of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq will require greater diplomatic, military and intelligence coordination with Iraq’s neighbors."
The results of Iraq’s provincial elections are not yet final, but some analysts have already drawn conclusions about their meaning. Narrow interpretations on all sides of the Iraq policy debate have proliferated – some maintain that these elections demonstrate that the “surge worked,” while others have argued that “Iran lost” in these Iraqi elections. Still others cite the elections as evidence of a nationalist resurgence in Iraq that will enable sectarian and ethnic differences to melt away. Beyond these surface level analyses is an important story for not only the current state of play in Iraq’s domestic politics, but also broader shifts of U.S. policy in the region.
Last Saturday’s provincial elections in Iraq were the first in a series of tests of how well Iraq’s political leaders work together to advance their country’s political transition. This first test is not yet over—final election results are not in, and once they are announced, how the winning and losing parties act as new provincial governments are formed will set the tone for whether Iraq continues to achieve greater stability and make progress on building consensus over power-sharing arrangements.
The provincial elections, which saw more than 14,000 candidates run for 440 seats in councils around the country, were relatively peaceful and competitive compared to the last round of elections in January 2005. Besides allegations of vote rigging in parts of the country including the western Al-Anbar province (election officials are still investigating the charges), there is no evidence of widespread fraud. Voter turnout was lower in the central part of the country – where most U.S. troops are located – compared to turnout in the southern and northern parts of the country.
Three major differences exist between these elections and the 2005 provincial elections. First, unlike in 2005, there was no Sunni boycott this year. The participation of Sunni voters and a wider array of Sunni political forces in these elections will mean that the provincial councils in parts of the country such as Mosul, the third-largest city with a mixed population of mostly Sunni Arabs and Kurds, will have greater representation of Sunni Arab interests. Second, the Shia religious parties based largely in southern and central Iraq are more fractious than they were four years ago. Finally, nationalist tickets that appealed to voters beyond sectarian identity seem to have performed better at the polls this year than in 2005, though results are preliminary.
Two main challenges lie ahead, no matter which political forces emerge victorious once the final vote tallies are announced. First, the post-election period is a particularly sensitive time with new political forces entering Iraq’s formal power structures at the provincial level. The candidates who won seats in the provincial councils will move to elect new governors of the provinces in the coming weeks, and divided results among a range of political forces could lead to the same sort of deadlock exhibited in the national Council of Representatives during the past three years. Three provinces in northern Iraq with a mixed population of Arabs and Kurds - Ninevah, Salah-Ad-Din, and Diyala – have experienced ethnic tensions and violence tied to power struggles between communities, and these tensions will require attention from diplomats from the United States and other countries, as well as from the United Nations.
The second immediate challenge is that Iraqi voters have high expectations for these provincial councils to address basic needs and provide essential services for their communities, including security, electricity, clean water and education. One question is whether these provincial governments will have the resources and power to deliver; the central government in Baghdad, along with representatives from the central government ministries in the provinces, still wield a great deal of control over budget resources, which has impeded the provincial governments’ efforts to meet citizens’ basic needs.
Beyond the implications these elections will have on Iraq’s domestic politics, what do these provincial elections mean for U.S. policy in Iraq and the broader Middle East? First, the phased redeployment of U.S. troops with a timetable that the Iraqi government agreed to with the Bush administration is likely to move ahead as planned. In fact, it may even accelerate. In comments to the media after the provincial elections, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki said that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the county might be sooner than the dates outlined in the security agreement, and that the new administration in Washington had sent a signal that it plans to move forward on a faster schedule. For the past six months, Iraq’s leaders have jockeyed to be seen as the ones who reasserted Iraqi control over the country and won the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraqi soil. The reassertion of Iraqi sovereignty found in the U.S.-Iraq security agreement signed last year and the revival of Iraqi nationalism is likely to reinforce this move to redeploy U.S. troops.
Second, as the U.S. troop presence declines, the need for greater third-party engagement with Iraq’s internal tensions and conflicts will increase, particularly along tense fault lines like the Arab-Kurdish divide in northern Iraq. Provincial elections were delayed in Tamim province, where the disputed city of Kirkuk is located, because of a lack of consensus about how to share power in that divided city. The United Nations has been deeply engaged in mediating a dispute there, and the Obama administration should support these efforts. In addition, the enduring challenge of Iraq’s internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees – totaling nearly 20 percent of the population – will require both a humanitarian and political response. Iraqi refugees in places like Syria and Jordan were disenfranchised in these provincial elections, and IDPs participated at much lower rates than the rest of the Iraqi population. Addressing the concerns of these 4-5 million Iraqis – many of whom were pushed out of their homes in vicious sectarian and ethnic cleansing campaigns in 2005-2007 aimed at reshaping Iraq’s internal power balances by brute force for political reasons – will require the full attention of the international community.
Finally, as it continues a redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq, the Obama administration should continue its efforts to develop a more comprehensive and better coordinated strategy for the entire region than the previous administration had. Iraq is one important piece in a larger puzzle of the broader Middle East—and mitigating the risks of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq will require greater diplomatic, military and intelligence coordination with Iraq’s neighbors. The challenges of the broader Middle East – Iraq, Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict – are interlinked, and the Obama administration should ensure that it establishes proper coordination mechanisms between the efforts undertaken by newly appointed Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell and whomever replaces the current U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker. Last week’s provincial elections in Iraq auger more change ahead in Iraq, and the Obama administration should work to manage these changes by ensuring that its Iraq policy is linked and coordinated with a broader strategy for the region.