Iraq’s Next Test

by Ralph Peters [author, novelist]

Tomorrow, Iraq holds its third nationwide elections and its first without American training wheels. The results may tell us more about the region’s future than any event since the fall of Iran’s shah 30 years ago.

Can Middle Easterners, on their own, make democracy work?

This round of voting chooses the Iraqi equivalents to our state legislatures, and there are going to be some ugly irregularities. This is the Middle East, after all – where cheating the system is how you survive and prosper.

But if Minnesota can’t get it right, maybe we should cut Iraqis some slack. If the scams are kept within bearable limits and violence remains low, that counts as a major win.

The subsequent test will be whether the parties and interest groups on the losing end will accept the voters’ verdict over time. If they won’t, Iraq could come apart again.

No matter what the winning combination proves to be, parties of different faiths with contrary views on the public role of religion and disagreements over the centralization of power will have to accept the need for compromise in the national interest – tough work where all the players regard life as a zero-sum game.

Yet, if Iraq can make its hybrid, customized, raggedy-butt democracy work, there’s hope not only in Baghdad but also throughout the Middle East.

Who’s facing off at the polls? Fourteen of Iraq’s 18 provinces are in play – the three Kurdish provinces up north have their own election timelines, while setting the election rules in the disputed (historically Kurdish) city of Kirkuk has been shelved as “too hard to do.”

The voting provinces contain Iraq’s Arab population – largely Sunni in the center, Shia down south and mixed in Baghdad and other cities. And, while tensions remain between Sunni and Shia, the key ballot battles this time around are within those branches of Islam.

In the Sunni provinces, the contest lies between those who promote a central role for religion and those who back a more secular tribal leadership – but all of them want the Shia majority to back off. Having erred by boycotting past elections, the Sunnis who “flipped” to fight beside US forces now want their share of power.

In areas with mixed populations, past Sunni boycotts handed political offices to Shia Arabs or Kurds. Now the Sunnis are back with a vengeance, and no one’s sure the incumbents will yield power gracefully.

In the Shia provinces between Baghdad and Basra, the competition’s multi-sided and fierce. The linchpin figure is Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki, whose remarkable evolution from a weak, uncertain leader to a tough-minded strongman willing to play rough illustrates the way in which great occasions make great men.

Maliki’s Dawa party faces two significant challengers, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which “owns” four key provinces in the south, and Muqtada al-Sadr’s acolytes masquerading as independents.

While Sadr retains a base of support in urban slums, Maliki’s law-and-order regime has impressed Iraqis yearning for normal lives. Barring a startling upset, the real fight is between Dawa and ISCI – both with ties to Iran from their years in exile, both invoking religion and both distinctly paranoid.

The Shia in the south – especially tribal sheiks and their followers – share the frustration felt by Americans disgusted with both Democrats and Republicans. They despise Muqtada, but don’t think much of Dawa or ISCI, either.

Why? Contrary to hysterical Western analysts, the Shia of southern Iraq want nothing to do with Iran. An army-officer pal with considerable time in Mesopotamia stresses that the defining recent experience for Iraq’s Shias wasn’t Desert Storm, or their follow-on failed rebellion or even the fall of Saddam. It was the Iran-Iraq War – in which their sons, husbands and fathers were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands.

They distrust their fellow “Iraqi” Shia who enjoyed a safe exile in Iran during that war. And even though Iran has a minority Arab population just over the border, the local rivalry dates all the way back to Babylon. The local Shia resent our post-Saddam cession of power to returning exiles they view as pampered traitors.

So the local sheiks are seeking the best deals they can cut with men they despise. To some extent, such horse-trading is happening throughout Iraq. Overall, 14,400 candidates are running for 440 provincial-council seats (thousands of other candidates were disqualified, Chicago-style).

What’s going to happen? We don’t know, because the Iraqis don’t know. Iraq’s voters are pioneers. These elections could lead to a reborn Iraq or to renewed violence. But, after the inevitable complaints and recriminations calm, the odds are that Iraq will muddle through.

That’s democracy. ExileStreet

courtesy NY Post / copyright 2009 NY Post

Ralph Peters’ latest book is “Looking For Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World.”

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer and the author of 19 books, as well as of hundreds of essays and articles, written both under his own name and as Owen Parry. He is a frequent columnist for the New York Post and other publications.

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