BAGHDAD – A curious thing has happened in Iraq. As the war has waned, politics has broken out.
On election day at the end of January, Iraqi polling sites were surrounded by Iraqi soldiers and police – some armed with rocket-propelled grenades for added protection against insurgents who traditionally are better armed.
They didn’t seem to need them – the only reported violence across the country was an unrelated death in Sadr City.
And now with most of the ballots counted, the smoke is clearing on the political battle field and the results are becoming clearer: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party has seen widespread gains.
But voter turnout was low and where this all leads remains a question.
Unlike elections in 2005, organized by the UN and facilitated by the U.S., these were largely an Iraqi production. Apart from a wayward press release announcing that the U.S. Air Force had been involved in transporting election ballots, the Americans generally kept a studied low profile in their new role as backseat drivers.
Perhaps even more surprising – this is what was supposed to have happened. General David Petraeus left here last year repeating the mantra that there was no military solution to this most complicated of wars. The troop surge he oversaw was meant to set the conditions to make it safe enough for the political reconciliation needed to turn temporary stability into lasting security.
Although the memo seems to be going out from his successor, Lt. Gen. Odierno, that Iraq is reaching "irreversible" momentum, the description on the lips of more cautious officials is "still fragile and reversible."
"This shows that the surge succeeded in providing the enabling environment for political reconciliation but we are not yet there," says Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, one of the region’s most adept politicians. "We should be very careful because the fundamental political issues — power sharing, oil and revenue sharing, disputed territories — are yet to be resolved and unless we resolve these issues my concern is that these political and security gains remain very fragile and very precarious and we should not take them for granted."
After three years of this country tearing itself apart, the peaceful elections and purple fingers are the feel-good Iraqi story of the year. But what’s to come, particularly in an election where the turnout was dramatically lower than expected, is more problematic.
“We tend to confuse elections with democracy when it’s really just one part,” says a Western monitor of the elections, in which only 51 percent came out to vote, less than the turnout in 2005 when it was far more dangerous and Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the polls.
Iraqi and U.S. officials had been predicting upwards of 70 percent. A country-wide vehicle ban designed to prevent car bombs seemed to limit the turnout, indicating that while Iraqis are willing to die to vote, they’re not willing to walk.
While the ballots are still being counted, the broader outlines of Iraq’s new political landscape have been clearly redrawn.
Preliminary results show the Maliki's Dawa party with gains in nine of the 10 southern provinces, most of it at the expense of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.
ISCI, formerly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, seems to be not only too revolutionary for most Iraqi’s scaled-down aspirations, but squandered their chance by failing to deliver basic services. Their poor showing was also seen as a vote of no-confidence in their vision of a semi-autonomous Shiite south, similar to the Kurdish north.
The worrying news for a prime minister still basking in the glow of the success of his potentially disastrous move to take on Shiite militias in Basra last year is that in most provinces his party won less than 10 percent of the vote, sharing the remainder with Sadr supporters, ISCI and a wider variety of smaller groups.
“The Shiite alliance has totally fragmented,” says one senior Iraqi leader. Which means the scramble to create coalitions in the powerful provincial councils is on.
A year ago Iraq’s Sunni-Shiite rift was the focus of worry here. With those tensions waning as both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias have faded into the background, that discord has been overshadowed by the Kurdish-Arab rift.
In Ninevah Province, part of a 300-mile swathe of land claimed by the Kurdish regional government along the unofficial green line separating Kurdish from Iraqi government territory, a new Sunni Arab party has swept into power with almost 50 percent of the vote – a stronger showing than any party in the 14 provinces that voted Saturday.
Al-Hadbaa’s victory after a campaign largely perceived as overtly anti-Kurdish overturns the Kurdish hold on Ninevah’s provincial council. The Kurds held 31 of the 41 seats on the council after Sunni Arabs widely boycotted the last elections, leading to what was considered one of the most dysfunctional provincial councils in the country.
The Kurds though expect to clean up in the disputed territories – some of them with large populations of minority Yzedis, who are counted by Kurdish parties as Kurdish.
The Yzedis, an ancient religious group mistakenly considered devil worshippers by many belonging to Iraq’s more mainstream faiths, are split as to whether they consider themselves Kurds.
"My feeling is that they’ll vote for them on the theory that 'the Kurds hate us slightly less than the others,' " says one U.S. official.
In al-Anbar Province, home to Fallujah and Ramadi and now safe enough for an afternoon drive, the Iraqi Islamic Party, which has ruled the province since 2005, lost ground to tribal leaders and more secular rivals.
Heading into parliamentary elections at the end of this year, the provincial polls have put complacent parties on notice that they cannot take voters for granted.
“There are very important messages to all – I don’t think anyone’s a victor in this, really,” says the senior Iraqi official.
Around Iraq, as incumbents were dealt resounding defeats, the political process itself rather than the politicians appeared to be the winner.
(This story was revised on Jan. 10)