Iraq's election day went off remarkably well. Despite some scattered and tragic violence, there was nothing like the kind of devastating violence threatened by a few insurgent groups and only scattered reports of problems in the electoral process. The de-Baathification shenanigans of Chalabi and al-Lami did some long-lasting damage to the credibility of state institutions and the rule of law, but not enough to cripple the elections. The relatively calm election day was overseen, it's worth emphasizing, by Iraqi security forces and not by U.S. troops -- something which I was often informed, over the last year, couldn't possibly happen. It did. This is simply excellent news, and a credit to the emerging capability of the Iraqi state. So now that election day is past, what now?
First, don't rush to speculate on who won or what it means. All the Iraqi lists are loudly claiming victory, but the truth is that no official (or even unofficial) results yet seem to exist. The anecdotal evidence still points to the pre-election speculation -- Maliki on top, Allawi a strong second, the ISCI/Sadrist Shi'a list fading -- but it's only anecdotal. It does make a difference who comes out on top, and who becomes Prime Minister - Maliki and Allawi, for instance, would have very different styles, as would Chalabi or some such. But at the same time, there's almost certainly going to be a coalition of some kind (fully inclusive or otherwise) and the differences probably won't be as stark as some people expect.
Everybody has been predicting that the post-election coalition maneuvering will be long and painful, and could create the kind of security and political vaccuum which caused so many problems in the first half of 2006. I suspect that this is wrong. Iraqis learned from that experience, and they've been spending the last half-year gaming out coalition scenarios. I think that we'll see some intense political jockeying, with escalating warnings of disaster which lead to some worried op-eds about how the U.S. must get involved to resolve the conflict. And then it will resolve itself, likely within a month. I could be wrong -- lord knows, Iraq is hard to predict -- but that's my sense. Check back in a month and we'll see.
The other main headline of the Iraqi election campaign has to be the overwhelmingly nationalist tone of all major politicians and the marginal American role in the process. The election campaign (as opposed to the results, which we still don't know) showed clearly that Iraqis are determined to seize control of their own future and make their own decisions. The U.S. ability to intervene productively has dramatically receded, as the Obama administration wisely recognizes. The election produced nothing to change the U.S. drawdown schedule, and offered little sign that Iraqis are eager to revise the SOFA or ask the U.S. to keep troops longer. Iraq is in Iraqi hands, and the Obama administration is right both to pay close attention and to resist the incessant calls to "do more." This doesn't mean ignoring Iraq -- the truth is, the Obama administration has been paying a lot more attention to Iraq than the media has over the last year. It means moving to develop a normal, constructive strategic relationship with the new Iraqi government, with the main point of contact the Embassy and the private sector rather than the military, and adhering in every way possible to the SOFA and to the drawdown timeline.
Follow the Middle East Channel for a lot of analysis of the Iraqi election in the coming days!
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