Baghdad looked like a ghost town after all traffic had been banned to prevent suicide attacks in today’s election for a parliament that will produce the first sovereign Iraqi government elected by all communities since the invasion.
Few people appeared on the streets yesterday aside from police and soldiers. The roar of generators, essential because of the electricity shortage, was the only sound reverberating through the empty streets. Sunni Arabs, the core of the armed resistance, are expected to vote in a reverse of their boycott of the parliamentary election on 30 January. Some insurgent groups have called for a big Sunni turnout and even those demanding a boycott are not threatening to attack voters.
Most of the votes for the 275-seat parliament are expected to go to parties representing a single ethnic or religious group. Once again, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the coalition of Shia religious parties, is likely to win the largest number of seats. If it does well it is likely to renew its alliance with the two main Kurdish parties fighting the election on a single ticket.
“The Kurds consider their combination with the Shia religious parties as a strategic alliance which they should not abandon even though they do not much like them,” said a Kurdish commentator. But the Kurds would like to act as power brokers and dilute their reliance on Shia clerical parties by bringing in Sunni Arabs and secular leaders such as Iyad Allawi, the former prime minister, when a government is formed.
The present election differs in significant ways from the election in January. The Sunni are voting. They will probably get around 55 seats compared to 17 last time when they boycotted.
But they are only 20 per cent of the population and, while their representation may increase, they will still be a minority. They know that the real reason Washington and London care about their views is that they have killed or wounded 17,000 US soldiers. Armed resistance will remain their most effective political card. They will not give it up except in return for a US agreement to withdraw.
President George Bush defended the decision to invade Iraq yesterday, even though he admitted that “it is true much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong”. He was speaking in the last of a series of public events before the election.
“My decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision. Saddam was a threat and the American people and the world is better off because he is no longer in power,” he said.
The terms of a US withdrawal are likely to be a central issue in Iraqi politics over the next two years. The US military have contained but are unable to crush the Sunni insurrection. President Bush says that US forces will stay until the Iraqi army and police have been trained and equipped to overcome the insurgents.
This is unlikely to happen, however, as the Iraqi army is divided between Sunni, Shia and Kurds. The difficulty is not lack of numbers or military expertise, but of loyalty to the state. If Sunni units are used against Sunni insurgents they may mutiny. If Shia or Kurdish units are deployed unrestrained by the US Army they may provoke a wider uprising. If the insurgency cannot be quelled by force then a ceasefire must come by agreement. The Sunni price for such an agreement to end the armed resistance would be US withdrawal.
The degree of success of Mr Allawi will also be important for the future of Iraq. His campaign slogans emphasise that he is a secular nationalist, a strongman able to provide the security Iraqis yearn for. Many Baghdadis interviewed on the street this week find this appealing. “I’ll vote for Allawi,” said Laith Ismail Ibrahim, a Sunni. “He is the man of security and a former Baathist.”
A problem for Mr Allawi is that the secular and nationalist vote may not be big enough. The US, Britain and the Gulf states would like him to do well but political organisation in Iraq outside Kurdistan is very dependant on clergy and local mosques. Ahmed Chalabi, the other secular–though Shia–candidate, may also struggle to mobilise votes.
The United Iraqi Alliance, the Shia coalition, has changed since the last election with the adhesion of the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his powerful blend of nationalism and religion. The backbone of the alliance remains the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa party. Many are disillusioned with these parties in government but they still have mass support.