Misreading the Iraqi Election Results

Now that their nemesis, George W. Bush, has left office, the mainstream media can be unbridled in their optimism about the future of Iraq. After 9/11, they chose to allow themselves to be duped by the Bush administration’s fairly lame reasons for the clearly unrelated U.S. invasion of Iraq and have been bitter about the quagmire ever since.

Given that Barack Obama, whom most media covered favorably during the election campaign, has taken office, their coverage of the recent Iraqi provincial elections indicates that they have flipped and now see a glass half full in Iraq rather than a glass half empty. They have touted the Iraqi elections as a wild success, with purple-thumbed Iraqi citizens depicted as supporting a centralized Iraqi state over autonomy for Iraq’s regions.

Not so fast.

Of course, President Obama should capitalize on the “successful” elections, praise the progress Iraq has made, and use them as an excuse to immediately begin a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from this quagmire. But as the reality of a much slower withdrawal is probably afoot, he should not be deluded into thinking that upon a final U.S. exit, Iraq will remain a unified, centralized country. The alleged centripetal forces reflected in the election will likely turn out to be illusory. In Shi’i regions of the country, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party–which took a more nationalist, rather than religious, line in this election–and candidates of radical cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who has always taken an Islamist and nationalist line, gained at the expense of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which advocates strong regional governments. The Sunni areas of the country, north and west of Baghdad, have always been more prone to support centralization over strengthening regional governments because, at the present time, fewer oil resources have been confirmed in that part of the country.

The problem with the thesis that centralizing forces are ascendant is that Shi’i parties, including that of Prime Minister al-Maliki, are just that. Ominously, most are religious in orientation and never garner many votes in most Sunni or Kurdish areas. Also, traditionally under previous Sunni-led dictatorships, and especially under the Ba’athist party autocracy, Sunnis had a tendency to be Arab nationalist and not Iraqi nationalists. That scares Kurds and Shi’a because Sunni Arab nationalists see Iraq as part of a larger Arab world, which is about 85 percent Arab Sunni.

The Kurds, who didn’t even hold provincial elections in the three provinces of their autonomous area, are pretending to play the U.S. game of holding Iraq together but will probably try to bolt from the country, or at least deepen their already autonomous status, when U.S. forces leave.

Thus, despite the rise of parties in the Shi’i areas that are “centralizers,” in practice Iraq is still a fragmented country in which Sunni areas vote for Sunni parties, Shi’i regions vote for Shi’i parties, and Kurdish areas vote for Kurdish parties. No national parties that cut across ethno-sectarian lines are prominent.

Also, looking back at Iraqi history, both the Kurds and the Shi’a have repeatedly revolted against Sunni-dominated governments. The Kurds launched uprisings against the Iraqi central government in 1920, 1923–”1932, 1935–”1936, 1945, 1958–”1962, 1964–”1970, 1972, 1974–”1975, and 1991; Shi’i unrest against that same government occurred in 1920, 1927, 1930–”1933, 1935–”1936, 1956, 1969, 1974, 1977, and 1991.

Although, the government is now Shi’i-dominated, the recent, dramatic sectarian violence between Arab Sunnis and Shi’a has left deep suspicions between the communities and has resulted in ethnically cleansed and walled off enclaves for each sect. In the north, provincial elections in the volatile and oil-rich province of Kirkuk had to be postponed because the area has been a powder keg of rival Kurds, Arab Sunnis, and Turkomen.

An election that was long on centralizing sentiments doesn’t wipe away deep historical fissures nor an artificial country physically divided among ethno-sectarian groups. Studying other recent ethno-sectarian conflicts does not provide optimism about Iraq’s future as a unified, centralized state. In these conflicts, centrifugal forces have resurfaced after years, decades, and even centuries of dormancy and triumphed in the end. Iraqi history has already seen this cycle.

Even as the Cold War ended, in Czechoslovakia, polls of both the Czech and Slovak parts of the country indicated that a majority of each wanted to remain as a unified country. But Czechoslovakia eventually fell victim to typically powerful ethnic undercurrents and was eventually partitioned–fortunately peacefully.

In Iraq, as Obama wisely draws down U.S. forces, he should not use his excuse for withdrawing–the “progress” demonstrated by Iraqi elections–to ignore powerful historical ethno-sectarian forces there. He should use the U.S. withdrawal to leverage a national conclave that weakens the central government and enhances regional autonomy for the various groups. If he doesn’t do so, the historical repression of ethno-sectarian groups by a powerful Iraqi central government will likely combine with ethno-sectarian suspicions caused by the recent sectarian mini-civil war to trigger an even bigger and bloodier internecine conflagration.

As famous baseball great Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” It’s not over, and Obama needs to realize that and take precautions, instead of living in the media’s fantasy world of a centralizing and democratic Iraq. If he doesn’t do so, Iraq could again become a violent mess either after a U.S. withdrawal or during the pull out, thus creating pressure for U.S. forces to remain.