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Seven years after the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003, and despite the presence of over one hundred thousand troops on its soil, the role of the US has greatly diminished, as demonstrated by the latest elections in the country.
When Bush invaded Iraq, there were three main objectives. First, he sought to restore and project US power in the aftermath of the 9/11 devastation. In his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech on May 1, 2003, Bush declared: “The Battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September the 11th, 2001.”
Second, the Bush administration wanted to transfer America’s Middle East military bases from an increasingly unstable Saudi Arabia, with a restless population, to a more accommodating and compliant Iraq. On April 30, 2003, shortly after the fall of the Baathist regime in Baghdad, the London’s Daily Telegraph reported that "America began a historic reshaping of its presence in the Middle East yesterday, by announcing a halt to active military operations in Saudi Arabia and the removal of almost all of its forces from the kingdom within weeks,” fulfilling one of the major “demands of bin Laden.” By toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration was able to build a system of hundreds of military bases and installations around the country.
The third objective was for the US to have effective control over Iraqi oil once Iraq became a client state, as US policymakers envisioned at the time. Perhaps what sealed Saddam’s fate was his policy of switching the currency of Iraqi oil from the dollar to the euro. Most tellingly, the first executive order signed by Bush in May 2003 regarding Iraq, was to switch trading Iraq’s oil back to the dollar.
In his 2002 National Security Strategy, and subsequently in his State of the Union address, Bush laid out his doctrine of preemptive war. However, the doctrine’s utter failure came not only courtesy of the lack of consensus among policymakers in Washington, but also as a result of the fierce Iraqi resistance that ensued shortly after the start of the American occupation in April 2003. Indeed, Iraqi resistance single-handedly reversed the neocons’ imperialist project across the Middle East.
Aside from the terrible human loss and suffering, as well as the devastation of the country’s infrastructure, the major legacy of the American occupation, especially during the reign of viceroy Jerry Bremer, was the promotion of sectarian (Shi’i/Sunni) and ethnic (Arab/Kurd) divisions in Iraq. For the first time in Iraqi society, every position in government, from the membership of the interim government council to the lowest bureaucrat, was selected based on sect or ethnic background rather than qualifications.
This ill-advised policy resulted in highly sectarian and ethnically-based politics, as best illustrated in the results of the 2005 parliamentary elections. The major winners in those elections for 275 seats were three major blocs, all ethnically or sectarian based: the Shi’a (128), Kurd (53) and Sunni (44 seats, despite their boycott) coalitions.
On March 7 of this year Iraqis went again to the polls to elect 325 members to the parliament. In these elections, the Iraqi people had more choices, representing not only their sect and ethnicity, but also non-sectarian and nationalist slates. Fed up with sectarian politics, many new alliances were formed based on secular and nationalist programs.
The Independent High Electoral Commission, which supervised the elections, had eight members that were appointed by the parliament on the basis of their qualifications and integrity. They devised a system that was largely transparent and efficient. More than 18.9 million people out of Iraq’s population of 32 million were registered to vote, in which about 62 per cent (11.7 million) actually participated.
The biggest winner of the elections was the Iraqiya alliance led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, garnering 26per cent of the vote. Considered a pragmatist and a strong man, he is also a secular Shi’a, and a former 1970s Baathist, who was on the CIA payroll in the 1990s. He led the first interim government before the 2005 elections and during his tenure oversaw the crackdown and massacres of the Sunnis in Falluja and the Shi’ites in Najaf. In 2005, his coalition won only 25 seats, while in this election his coalition, composed of mostly Sunnis and secular Shi’ites, won 91 seats.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s State of Law coalition won 89 seats, led by his Dawah Shi’a party. In 2005, he was part of a primarily Shi’a coalition that included the Islamic Supreme Council and the Sadrists. In this election, he refused to join his old bloc for several reasons.
First, the Shi’a coalition partners refused to concede to him the premiership before the elections. Furthermore, he did not want to be closely tied to Iran, which had a great influence over the Shi’a-led parties and coordinated the formation of the alliance. During his campaign, Maliki played up his independence and nationalist credentials in an attempt to appease a public fed up with with sectarian politics and foreign influence.
Indeed, the biggest losers in this election were the coalitions that appealed to their own sect or ethnicity. For instance, the Shi’a alliance, representing the Iran-backed parties, won 70 seats (a loss of 58 seats). But within that coalition, the biggest winner was the Sadrists with over 40 seats, who campaigned on a platform of independence and pride in themselves as Iraqi nationalists. Similarly, the Sunni-led alliance of the Islamic Party won only 6 seats, a loss of 38 seats from the 2005 elections.
The traditional alliance of the ethnic Kurdish parties of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and Kurdish region president Masood Barzani, won only 43 seats (down from 53.) Other Kurdish parties, appealing to anti-corruption and Iraqi nationalist sentiments (rather than Kurdish) won another 14 seats in the Kurdish regions, underscoring the resentment among a significant number of Kurds at the politics of separatism advocated by the two main Kurdish parties.
The influence of foreign powers over the Iraqi elections also played a significant role. Iran orchestrated the Shi’a alliance by exerting a considerable pressure on the major Shi’a parties, despite failureg to persuade Maliki and his Dawa party to join. Turkey, on the other hand, and to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia and Syria, were instrumental in the creation of Allawi’s secular and nationalist coalition.
In addition to secular Shi’as allied with Allawi, the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, was able to bring to the coalition two significant Sunni leaders, namely, vice president Tarik Al-Hashmi and popular veteran politician Saleh Al-Mutlak, securing the vote of the majority of the Sunni dominated provinces, which mainly boycotted the 2005 elections.
The surprise for many observers has been the low-key role the US has played in the Iraqi elections. From the beginning, the Obama administration has shifted its focus and resources to Afghanistan. During his last visit to Washington, Iyad Allawi even failed to secure a meeting with any senior administration official.
With more than 4,300 American casualties, 32,000 wounded soldiers, and after surpassing $900 billion in costs (reaching $1 trillion by Dec. 2011), the Obama administration reversed most of Bush’s major decisions in Iraq. Its most important strategic objective has been to oversee an orderly withdrawal and wind down the US military involvement.
According to a Dec. 2009 Department of Defense report presented to Congress, titled: “Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq,” the US closed or returned to Iraq 183 military bases with another 280 to be returned by the end of 2011. Since Obama’s inauguration, the number of American troops has been reduced from 135,000 to 96,000. By August, 2010, the administration wants the total number of troops to be around 40,000, ten thousand less than the security agreement called for. However, it wants to withdraw all American troops and equipment by December of next year, effectively reversing Bush’s policy of a long-term military presence in Iraq.
While many Iraqis celebrated in Baghdad and many parts of Iraq in the hope of a new future free of sectarianism and separatism, PM Maliki stunned the nation by questioning the results and charging fraud. When the elections commission and many neutral observers rejected his charges, he threatened to disqualify as many as 6 or even 10 elected representatives from Allawi’s coalition under the charge that they are former Baathists in order to come out on top.
However, in case none of these tactics works, Maliki has resorted to another political gimmick. He asked the head of Iraq’s Supreme Court, a close confidant of Maliki, to re-interpret article 76 of the Constitution regarding the appointment of the prime minister.
Article 76 states: “The President of the Republic shall charge the nominee of the largest Council of Representatives bloc with the formation of the Council of Ministers.”
This article is not unique to Iraq, since in most parliamentary systems, the leader of the coalition formed before the elections that won the largest number of representatives to the parliament is given the first opportunity to form the government. However, the head of the Iraqi judiciary ruled within one day of the results that the person who forms the largest coalition from different blocs after the election has the right to form the government.
Since the announcement of the results on March 26, Maliki has sought Iran’s help in pressuring its allies in the national alliance (with 70 seats), to merge with his coalition in order to overtake Allawi’s coalition for a total of 159 to 91. But the real problem for Iran has been the unpredictability of the Sadrists, who control more than 40 seats and detest Maliki because of his antagonistic history and policies towards them. During his tenure, his security forces attacked them in Baghdad as well as in many cities across the south. Meanwhile, the US and Turkey with a great leverage over the Kurdish parties, have begun to apply pressure on them to support Allawi.
Ironically, American lives and money in Iraq were sacrificed to enhance the geostrategic and political position of Iran. For the past five years Iran’s political allies have been in control of Iraqi politics, while its main detractors were in total disarray. But the triumph of secular and non-sectarian parties in the latest elections may signal a new dynamic that could reverse the sectarian and ethnic spiral in the hope of new future for Iraq.
With many players, conflicting interests, and horse-trading, it’s unclear who will come out on top, Maliki, Allawi or even a dark horse as a compromise from within the Shi’a grand coalition. But what is clear is that Iraq is at a crossroads, facing either a future of continued mistrust and sectarian and ethnically based politics, or a glimmer of hope with transformational politics based on national interests and Iraq’s territorial integrity and independence.
ESAM AL-AMIN can be contacted at: email@example.com