The Challenges Facing Post-Election Iraq

The January 30, 2005 Iraqi election took place against the backdrop of a deep sectarian divide on almost every critical issue facing the country: whether or not to have an Islamic government; whether or not to continue the US presence; and whether or not the ongoing insurgency represents legitimate resistance.

Even before the final tallies are announced, the attitudes of Iraq’s electorate can be culled from an exclusive pre-election poll commissioned by Abu Dhabi Television and conducted by Zogby International of New York (ADTV/ZI).

The poll helps to identify voter concerns and reveals details of the challenges facing the new Iraqi government.

A Deeply Divided Nation

The ADTV/ZI poll’s projections of between 43% and 60% turnout were borne out in the election, so too was the sectarian divide in voting patterns.

While some US officials have trumpeted the turnout rate, comparing it to US numbers, such comparisons are invalid and dangerous. The turnout, itself, was sectarian, with 80% of Shi’a and 69% of Kurds indicating their intention to vote, while 76% of Sunni Arabs stated that they would definitely not vote. The different expectations and motivations of each group were also clear. Shi’a felt empowered and were voting for control of the government, and Kurds were voting as an expression of their autonomy. The Sunni Arab failure to vote was a function not only of threats, but a clear expression of their growing sense of disenfranchisement.

This is a dangerous divide that must be closed. If the winners do not act to enfranchise the Sunni Arab community and create a unifying Iraqi national agenda, the outcome of this election could serve to deepen the sectarian split and exacerbate the insurgency.

The Unpredictability of Iraq’s Future Course

What this election has done is put Iraqis in political control. Will they make the right choices? What direction will they take? It’s too early to tell, but what is clear is that it is the newly empowered Iraqi leadership who will decide, not the US.

Looking at the poll results it appears that the majority of Iraqis do not want an Islamic government, instead preferring a more open system. But when looking more closely at the results, one observes that the supporters of the winning coalition are in fact in favor of an Islamic government. For example, among those who state that Ayatollah Sistani is the leader they must trust, 52% want an Islamic government, 83% of the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr feel the same. The overall numbers are skewed in favor of the more open system because they include Kurdish and Arab Sunnis, and more secular Shi’a groups (2/3’s of whom want a more open government), all of whom oppose, in their majorities, an Islamic state.

If, therefore, the winning coalition attempts to use their victory as a mandate, they may feel inclined to take Iraq down the path supported by a majority of their followers, but not a majority of all Iraqis. This could prove provocative and divisive.

Whither the Insurgency and the US Presence?

Two key sets of numbers to note are the majority of Sunni Arabs who say that the violence in Iraq is legitimate resistance (53%) and the substantial majority of Arabs, both Sunni (82%) and Shi’a (69%) who want the US to leave, now that an elected government is in place. Only Kurds want the US to remain (51%) until “safety and security are restored to the country.”

Of particular interest here are the attitudes of the supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr. Their positions on both the insurgency and US presence are closer to those of the disenfranchised Sunni Arab community, than they are to other segments of the Shi’a community. It should be recalled that insurgents in both of these groups fought together against the US within the last year. Depending on the direction taken by the new Iraqi government and the US military, this tinderbox could be re-ignited once again.


The new Iraqi governing council will face the enormous challenge not only of writing a Constitution but organizing themselves to govern the country until the end of 2005. At the same time, however, they must take steps to bring their divided and wounded country together and find a way to remove the US presence as a target of opportunity for elements of the insurgency.

These are difficult political challenges, which is why it is important to caution against too much early enthusiasm. This is not yet “mission accomplished.” This situation can go either way.

The nightly US news analysis program “Nightline” sought to make this point right after the Iraqi election by recalling a September 4, 1967 New York Times story on Vietnam’s elections. The story headline read, “US Encouraged by Vietnam Vote.” The story’s sub headline read “Official Cite 83% Turnout Despite Vietcong Terror.” Now Iraq is not Vietnam. But the lesson is clear. This is not the time to declare victory. It is important for Iraqis and the United States to pause, assess the needs of Iraqi society, and respond to the challenges ahead.