Iraq’s reputation as a country beset by extreme violence remains what it was. Historically this is explained by Iraq’s position as a frontier zone surrounded by states more powerful than itself. From the time the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258 to the coming of the British in the First World War, the Iraqi tribes outside the cities largely ruled themselves. Modern Iraq has always been a violent country where everybody carries a gun, but everything which went before has been dwarfed by the experiences of the past 30 years. Since the start of the Iran-Iraq conflict in 1980, Iraq has known nothing but war, rebellion, sanctions, invasion and civil war.
Is this period of continuing emergency and conflict in Iraq now coming to an end? The government in Baghdad, closely copied by the administration in Washington, puts out figures showing that civilian casualties are lower than at any time since 2003. But there is a stridency about their claims which betrays an inner fear that what we are seeing is an intermission in Iraq’s violent history and that the country remains highly unstable.
This fear in Washington has grown swiftly in recent months because of spectacular bombings in Baghdad and the ferocity of the political combat before the Iraqi election which takes place tomorrow. Some of the American misgivings stem from having grossly overstated the achievements of the “surge”, the US troop reinforcements sent in 2007, and the belief that the US had won something close to a military victory. US television practically stopped reporting Iraq and switched to Afghanistan. Events in the weeks leading up to the Iraqi election came therefore as a nasty surprise, though they should have been predictable.
Previous Iraqi polls in 2005, when the present parliament was elected, deepened divisions between the three main Iraqi communities – Shia and Sunni Arabs and the Kurds – and opened the gates to the savage sectarian civil war of 2006-7. This time round the impending poll started to exacerbate sectarian hatred between Shia and Sunni when some 500 candidates – later reduced to 145 – were blacklisted at the start of the year as former Baathists. The most important of those banned were Sunni. Since then, the purge of Baathists has spread to the army, the civil administration and even the oil industry. Election posters in Shia areas of Baghdad contained dire warnings of “the Baathist threat”. Television and newspapers scarcely mention unemployment, corruption and lack of services.
The Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had promoted himself as a nationalist non-sectarian leader. But his Sunni allies and the US were both shocked to find him jumping on board the anti-Baathist bandwagon and vying with the other Shia parties over the toughness of measures he wants to take against the supposed supporters of the old predominantly Sunni regime.
There is probably less to this than meets the eye. Iraqi politics are very tough. Mr Maliki leads a Shia party and, while he may espouse Iraqi nationalism, it is very much a Shia version of it. He cannot afford to offend the Shia community which, in any case, makes up 60 per cent of Iraqis while the Sunni and Kurds are each 20 per cent.
There is another factor that stabilises Iraqi politics which has nothing to do with “the surge”. In 2006-7 the Shia and Sunni fought a savage civil war which was won by the Shia. Baghdad, the political heart of Iraq, is now an overwhelmingly Shia city. The two million refugees who fled the country are mostly Sunni and there is no sign of them coming home.
The outcome of the election may leave no single party with a majority, and there will be intense bargaining between the three main Shia groupings over division of top jobs and power. The Kurdish-Shia coalition, which had ruled Iraq since 2005, will probably be reconstituted with some changes in the way in which the spoils of office are distributed.
What could lead to a resumption of widespread violence? If the Sunni felt wholly marginalized and discriminated against they could, by the sort of bombing campaign we have seen in the past six months, destabilise the country to a degree. This would not be a return to full-scale civil war but it would prevent Iraq from settling down. The Americans do not admit it but Iran played a central role in supporting the Maliki government against the former Iranian allies in the militias. But if the US military withdrawal is halted, or there is a crisis in relations between the US and Iran, then the Iranians have a greater incentive to give the Americans a hard time in Iraq.
The Iraqi government which emerges from the election is as likely to be as corrupt, dysfunctional and authoritarian as the present one. But there is no power vacuum in Iraq and, for the moment, the era of wars which have devastated the country is probably over.
In the face of bomb and mortar attacks that killed 38 people and wounded 89 others, Iraqis went to the polls yesterday to elect a new parliament.
In a sinister new twist to insurgent methods in attacking civilians, explosives were placed in rooms rented by bombers in two apartment blocks in Baghdad and later detonated, destroying them both. This tactic, employed against the majority Shia community, could spark off a new wave of fear in the capital despite heavy police and army security, and checkpoints every few hundred yards. In one residential building in the Shaab district of Baghdad some 25 people were killed by a bomb.
It is unlikely that the election for the 325-member parliament will produce a majority for any single party or coalition of parties, and a new government will only be formed after weeks of hard bargaining over top jobs and control of ministries. The outcome of negotiations is likely to be the return of a Shia-Kurdish coalition, but possibly under a new prime minister, replacing Nouri al-Maliki.
* * *
The US is watching the election process nervously, fearing that any escalation in political turmoil and violence might put in doubt the Obama administration’s plan to withdraw all its combat troops by the end of August this year, and its remaining soldiers by the end of 2011.
The poll last week saw millions of people, out of the 19 million Iraqis eligible to vote, go to polling stations in the first parliamentary election since 2005. Unlike that election, which was largely boycotted by the formerly dominant Sunni Arab community, the Sunni appeared to have voted in large numbers this time.
This was despite threats from the Islamic State of Iraq, the umbrella organization for al-Qaida, that it would target voters, and despite the sporadic mortar attacks that took place on polling places in Baghdad and Fallujah.
A Mosul provincial council member was shot dead in an area disputed between Arabs and Kurds. Many Sunni consider past boycotts to have been a mistake because they benefited Shia and Kurdish parties. Mr Maliki, who is leading the State of Law coalition, said that attacks yesterday were “just noises to scare the Iraqi people from voting”. He has presented himself as the strong leader who has brought back security to Iraq, crushed the Shia militias, negotiated the departure of US forces, and made a start in restoring services. His own Dawa Party held only 10 seats in the previous parliament, but he has the great advantage of a $60bn [£40bn] budget and millions of government jobs, which puts him at the head of great patronage network. He enjoys considerable, but as yet unmeasured, popularity.
The Prime Minister may have been weakened by a series of large bomb attacks since August last year in which suicide bombers detonated trucks filled with explosives outside government ministries and hotels, inflicting heavy civilian casualties. The political campaign has been dominated since January by a furore over the banning of parliamentary candidates, mostly Sunni or secular Shia, alleged to have had links with the Baath Party of Saddam Hussein. Mr Maliki went along with this to make sure he retained his core Shia support, but his actions disillusioned some Sunni.
The main opposition to Mr Maliki are two other coalitions – the Iraqi National Alliance and Iraqiya – the first of which is more overtly Shia and the second of which, led by the former prime minister Iyad Alawi, claims to be more secular and to enjoy Sunni support. The Iraqi Alliance groups the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is close to Iran, with the supporters of the nationalist and anti-American Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Formerly deeply hostile to each other, the two parties were brought together by Ahmed Chalabi, a leading Shia politician.
Crucial to forming a new government will be the support of the Kurds, who make up a fifth of the Iraqi population and usually succeed in positioning themselves as kingmakers. Over the last two years, their leaders have become increasingly hostile to Mr Maliki, primarily because of quarrels over control of a wide band of territory in northern Iraq, including the oil city of Kirkuk.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the Ihe author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.”