Just once, one wishes, events in post-invasion Iraq could transpire without instantly being spun as helping or hurting President George W. Bush. There was no such luck after images of Iraqis cheerfully — even joyously — voting in the January 30, 2005 elections for a provisional national assembly zipped around the world. Bush, not surprisingly, claimed the images as vindication of the 2003 invasion and proof that his promised “forward march of freedom” in the Middle East is just getting started. Grumpy war critics unable to acknowledge voting Iraqis’ remarkable defiance of palpable physical danger circulated a 1967 New York Times article trumpeting the turnout in South Vietnam.
Direct national elections in Iraq were an Iraqi demand, voiced most prominently by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The US and its favored Iraqi proxies sidelined that demand until January 2004 demonstrations in Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala and other cities forced them to scuttle their preferred caucus plan. The Bush administration forgets this history when they claim the elections as a victory — but so do some on the anti-war left.
The pictures of purple fingers held aloft could not help but sow some seeds of hope for Iraq’s future. But they contain seeds of great peril as well. Most ominously, the turnout was differentiated across the country in a clear sectarian-ethnic pattern (see chart). Voting was heaviest in the three majority Kurdish provinces of the north (Dohuk, Erbil and Suleimaniya), and almost as heavy in the majority Shi‘i Arab provinces of the south. Turnout was moderate in Baghdad and low in Diyala, the mixed Sunni-Shi‘i province between the capital and the Iranian border. Very few people attended the polling in Anbar and Salah al-Din, two heavily Sunni Arab provinces.
It is impossible to know what accounts for the low turnout where it was low. But it is possible to appreciate a likely consequence of the differentiated voting pattern: a deepened sectarian divide which could alienate the Sunni Arab and secular boycotters of the elections further and encourage the election-day victors to claim a mandate for a maximalist program in drafting the permanent constitution. One detects such fears, along with more than a whiff of sectarian prejudice, in the warning of Sharif Hussein, nephew of the last Iraqi king, that the turnout resembled a “Shiite tsunami.”
The United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) victory in the elections is not necessarily a triumph for the idea of an Islamic state in Iraq, as the list’s leaders have hastened to assure Iraqis and the world. The UIA majority of 140 assembly seats is slender (see graph, opposite), and though they may bring small parties into their fold, they will almost definitely have to compromise to build a stable political order. The Kurdish bloc of 75 seats and interim prime minister Iyad Allawi’s bloc of 40 seats are large enough to force compromise on conservative planks of an Islamist platform — assuming that the UIA decides to push such a platform. Talk of Shi‘i Arab dominance in Iraq echoes the long-standing discourse that divides the country neatly into three parts, and treats each part as if inhabited exclusively by monolithic populations all of whose individual members think exactly alike. While the policies of Saddam Hussein and the US-led occupation have exacerbated sectarian divides, they have not eradicated all complexity in the Iraqi polity.
However, possibly the UIA’s most portentous policy decision came in the week before January 30, when the list quietly dropped a demand for a timetable for the end of the occupation from its platform. So far, the US-sponsored state-building process in Iraq has created a fragile state whose stewards are dependent upon a US praetorian guard. Far from ending the insurgency, the elections have therefore sparked continued attacks on the nascent Iraqi police force and Iraqi National Guard. Because the recruits are often disproportionately Shi‘i Arab, ongoing attacks also have the potential to sharpen sectarian animosities. Nor do the elections point to an imminent resolution of disputes with political opponents of the post-Saddam order. The boycotters’ main demand is a timetable, precisely what will not be forthcoming from the UIA and the Kurdish parties. That difference could scotch attempts, however well-intentioned, to craft an inclusive process for drafting the permanent constitution. Such is the poisonous effect of foreign occupation.