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Iraq After the Elections: Choices and Challenges Ahead

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The apparent success of Iraq’s December 14 parliamentary elections is good news for Iraq, for the United States, and for the democratization process in the region.  One senses a huge sigh of relief from the Bush Administration, from some American politicians who would like to move onto other issues, and from many Iraqi politicians and intellectuals who were becoming discouraged by political violence and the difficulty of creating a new political culture in Iraq.  

But now is not the time to become complacent.  It would be too easy to say that, now that the Iraqis have shown such competence and responsibility, the United States can plan for the winding down of its engagement there.  Many Americans think this would also be the smartest way to deal with the insurgency, since the US presence has been the stimulus and inspiration for much of the violence.  But we must put the elections in perspective, not to diminish the satisfaction that Iraqis should rightly feel, but to approach the coming agenda with the right amount of energy, commitment and realism.

First, let’s wait for the results.  We don’t know yet who the Sunnis in particular voted for, since pollsters seem confident that Sunnis who voted somehow linked their participation to anti-US sentiments.  The Shia bloc from the earlier vote in January split into new factions and alliances.  As we watch for which party has the first crack at forming a new government, and then the jockeying for positions within that government, it would be an encouraging sign to see some cross-communal coalitions emerge.  The Kurdish leaders, during visits to Washington in Fall 2005, hinted at their intention to join forces with like-minded non-Kurds political groupings.  Such a development would be a healthy sign of a shared identity as part of a single Iraqi polity, with interest groups forming over bonds other than ethnic or sectarian identity.

Second, let’s see how the new government treats the Constitution.  There could well be a push by the Sunni parliamentarians to amend the provisions relating to regionalism.  Many Iraqi intellectuals fear that the Constitution went too far in not only permitting, but promoting regionalism at the expense of a strong central state.  The Sunni majority provinces in the western part of the country have the most to lose should most of the north and the south opt to form regions, but other communities and individual political leaders will also support revisions.  From an international perspective, one hopes that the process of considering revisions does not expose the new government to an existential debate about Iraqi identity, and that the centripetal forces in the country do not take advantage of a new debate over the Constitution to push for further measures that would weaken the powers of the federal state.

A third issue is the process of internal reconciliation.  Who will champion the need for healing and building bridges across the communities?  The Arab League had an unexpected success in November when it brought all parties to Cairo and worked hard to secure Sunni participation in the elections.  Sotto voce was the League’s need to do its own healing with the Iraqi political class, which has been critical of the League’s poor record during the days of dictatorship, a charge League supporters reject, since intervention in internal affairs was never part of the Arab League’s mission.  But there are few signs that Iraqis themselves are yet focused on the need for reconciliation, as occurred in post-apartheid South Africa.  Perhaps the need is not as great, but the stories of a kind ethnic cleansing occurring in majority Sunni and majority Shia neighborhoods of Baghdad are chilling, and deserve attention and remedial action.  Exiled Iraqis have done some important work, through the Iraq Memory Foundation and other efforts to document the truth about Iraq’s recent history; these efforts must continue and must engage young people in the hopes of strengthening a positive Iraqi identity that transcends sectarian differences for the future.

Iraq and America are now part of each other’s modern histories.  Even if the American presence is scaled back in 2006, the fact of the American intervention, the good, bad and ugly ways the reconstruction effort proceeded, and the lingering political impact of America’s role on Iraqi public opinion has to be managed by the new Iraqi political actors.  Iraqis need to begin to write their own histories of the transition from Saddam Hussein to what could well be a successful young democracy.  Likewise, Americans are still in the grip of this Iraq story, which will remain the dominant factor for at least a decade of our own diplomatic history.  The decision to go to war will probably be seen as a failure of governance, even if the outcome turns out to be beneficial for Iraqis and for the region.  There will remain the question of scale and cost – at what cost to American lives and treasure did we bring about change in one Arab society?  What are the opportunity costs of having pursued controversial goals in Iraq, when this entanglement has almost certainly now diminished our resources to address both domestic and global requirements?  Some of these questions cannot be answered today.  For now, it is a rare moment of hope, of beginning to see an acceptable outcome for Iraq, but that future still requires much attention and hard work in Baghdad and Washington. 

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