The Iraqi elections seem to have been about as successful as could have been hoped, and may represent the last real chance to prevent a full-scale civil war. The pre-election analysis suggests that the United Iraqi Alliance, the main Shiite coalition, will get the biggest share of the votes, but probably not an absolute majority. If so, their leaders will face two immediate choices.
The first is what to do about forming a government. The obvious choice is a coalition with Allawi. Given the power of incumbency and the fact that there was no real campaign in many areas, his group is bound to get a fair number of votes, even though it’s clearly unpopular. There’s even talk that he could re-emerge as PM
The second choice is what to do about the Americans. Until a couple of days ago, the UAI platform called for a timetable for US withdrawal, but this was apparently changed at the last minute Meanwhile the Pentagon has been talking about continuing full-scale occupation for at least two years. In view of the security situation and the obvious pressure from the Bush administration, the obvious course of action is to defer any talk of withdrawal to the indefinite future.
In my view, the obvious choices would be disastrous in both cases, and for much the same reason. Holding elections is great, but the point of democracy is that they should make a difference and that governments should act in accordance with the wishes of voters. If the election leaves Allawi in office (even as a coalition partner) and the Americans in charge, it will be soon come to be seen as a pointless farce. And unless the government makes early US withdrawal a central demand, it will inevitably end up being seen, at best as a client and at worst a creature, of the Americans. The Sunnis won’t be slow to point this out, and neither will the Sadrists, who have played a cautious game that has given them some representation in the new assembly while maintaining a public boycott of the election.
Of course, there are good reasons to be fearful about the consequences of a US withdrawal. But this is the same kind of reasoning that led to the elections being delayed until now, when they could have been held under far more favorable conditions a year ago. What reason is there to believe that another two years of occupation will leave Iraq more capable of managing its own security? And if the Iraqi government doesn’t grasp the nettle itself, there’s always the risk that the Americans will make a unilateral decision to cut and run at the worst possible moment.
fn1. Officially of course, it’s the multinational coalition. But with Poland and the Ukraine about to withdraw, and Blair talking about an indicative timetable for withdrawal, there’s not much left of this figleaf.