Iraq Elections Successful, Now What?

While the Iraqi people and supporters of freedom around the world deserve a little time to revel in yesterday’s historic elections, the forces on the ground and policymakers have to continue working on making Iraq more secure and ready for a future where whatever foreign troops remain are their as invited partners rather than external overseers.

U.S. Troops: After Laying Groundwork, A Cautious Step Back (Philadelphia Inquirer, p.1)

Although he had toiled for weeks mulling every contingency, Capt. Rodney Schmucker figured there was an even chance he would be spending election day shooting it out on the streets with insurgents and cleaning up after suicide bombers. Instead, he and his men from the First Cavalry Division in southern Baghdad whiled away large blocks of time yesterday waving to jubilant Iraqi civilians and jostling with children in what often felt like a giant carnival.

It was a pleasant surprise – but it didn’t come by happenstance. U.S. forces in Iraq carried off what must have been one of the most elaborate security operations in modern history, even as they provided a boost to Iraqi army and police units by giving them the tools to play a key role in protecting thousands of polling places. The plan worked almost perfectly. There was violence – more than 40 people were killed in attacks – but nothing like what had been expected, and nothing that put a damper on what looked last night to be a larger turnout than anticipated. Iraqi security forces performed far better than most experts would have predicted, and the election is being hailed as a stunning U.S. victory in a 22-month occupation marked by painful setbacks.

The main question now is whether U.S. forces can continue to tamp down insurgent violence while shifting their focus to training Iraqi security forces, the formula the Pentagon says it plans to follow in Iraq. Also at issue is whether the insurgency really is as weak as it appeared to be yesterday or whether guerrillas were lying low to await a day when security measures are not so stringent. “There’s still a long way to go,” Schmucker said.

Although many Sunni Muslims voted yesterday, many did not, and the main worry is that hard-core Sunnis will view the election as illegitimate and continue to support the insurgency. With a Shiite-dominated National Assembly preparing to write a constitution, the resistance could begin to look more like a civil war. Another question is whether a shift by U.S. troops from offensive operations to a training role, expected to happen in the next few months, will allow insurgents more freedom of movement. But U.S. generals have been saying in recent weeks that only an autonomous, capable Iraqi security force will be able to completely stamp out an insurgency that feeds off resentment of the U.S. occupation.

I’ve emphasized the latter point for months as well. Clearly, it’s the most significant hurdle to be overcome. The unexpected level of bravery demonstrated by ordinary Iraqis yesterday, though, gives me more confidence than I’ve had previously. Not only will that likely shame Iraqi security forces into standing their ground with a little more fortitude than they’ve shown in the past, but it gives hope that regular citizens are itching for a chance to stand up to the thugs as well, if only given some reason to think they’ll be backed up.

Big Step But Long Road For U.S. Goals (LAT, p. 1)

Despite the exhilaration, the election may do little to win international support, assure a friendly government in Baghdad or prevent the spread of civil strife. World leaders usually look to the United Nations to help them make sense of elections in troubled regions. The U.N. election team for Iraq is already making it clear that it considers the balloting fair, even though Iraq was too dangerous to permit the presence of international observers. “They’re voting for the day when they’re going to take their destiny in hand,” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said.

Such judgments could serve to soften public opposition in Europe and the Middle East to the U.S. presence in Iraq. U.S. officials have said they are eager to change European attitudes, and Bush plans to make it a top priority of his second term. But even with international blessings, the balloting is unlikely to persuade balky European and Arab powers to do much more on the ground to support the U.S. effort, diplomats said. Many predicted that those who opposed the war would not soften their stance until Iraq had moved much further toward independence.


Bush has portrayed the election as similar to Colonial America’s first steps toward democracy. But some observers fear that the proper analogy is the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, which convinced the aggrieved Southern minority that it would only lose by remaining part of the union, triggering the Civil War.

Certainly, that possibility exists. It’s looking less likely by the day, though, as the Shiite leaders seem to recognize what’s at stake and are making great strides toward inclusion.

Next Step Has Entirely New Set Of Challenges (USAT, p. 6)

Before the vote, there was skepticism about the ability of Iraq’s Shiite majority to organize and take advantage of its numerical superiority. Oppressed for decades, Shiites had less access to education, top jobs and travel abroad, and they had few opportunities to develop modern political skills under Saddam Hussein. But the Shiites confounded skeptics by unifying several parties on a single slate and mobilizing a grass-roots voter-education campaign that made their candidate list the best known in the country.

During the campaign, Shiite leaders were careful to reach out to their Sunni counterparts. Shiite leaders included Sunni Arab candidates to balance their ticket but were largely unable to persuade Sunni parties to field their own slates. One, the Iraqi Islamic Party, boycotted the elections reluctantly but has said it wants to participate in the new government and writing of a constitution. Shiites now must be gracious winners — inviting participation by Arab Sunnis rather than dictating the shape of the transitional government — if the country is to overcome sectarian divisions. The politics of the campaign forced Shiite clerics to soften their image as turbaned men who want to create a theocracy. Their statements promised compromise and moderation. They put up campaign posters featuring a modern couple in Western-style clothes. In the wake of what looks like a big win, Shiite leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari said a Shiite-led government would not renege on promises to leave governing to civilians rather than mullahs.

Iraq Seeks Governing Blueprint (WSJ, p. 16) [$]

Post-election Iraq is a country in search of a governing model. The world has many to offer, from Lebanon to Switzerland. But will any of them fit? Beyond the continuing insurgency there, Iraq’s key challenge in the months ahead will be to craft a new constitution to balance its often-hostile factions and regions to hold the country together. Other multiethnic trouble spots offer plenty of examples that grant special powers to various groups. All have their drawbacks and none well match Iraq’s needs. Some scholars, and many Iraqi leaders, say a federal system based on regional rights would be better for the country. “To talk about bringing democracy to Iraq is fine, but it’s not enough,” says James Dobbins, head of the Rand Corp.’s international-security program and a former U.S. envoy to Kosovo, Haiti and Afghanistan. “Some form of power sharing will have to be found.”

Iraq is divided roughly between three main groups: Shiite Arabs, at about 60%, and Sunni Arabs and Kurds, at about 20% each. Hatching a constitutional system that pleases all sides will be a challenge of unusual magnitude. Voter turnout yesterday appeared high in Shiite and Kurdish areas, but much lower in many Sunni areas. Amid the raging insurgency, largely in Sunni regions, Iraqi lawmakers must chart the country’s course almost from scratch, and with little prior negotiation among factions. Some legal scholars suggest Iraq’s constitutional drafters should examine the Lebanese model, which has sought to juggle that country’s deep sectarian divides through a complex power-sharing arrangement based on religion. The Lebanese president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of Parliament a Shiite Muslim. Both the cabinet and the Parliament must maintain a Muslim-Christian ratio of 6 to 5. But the Lebanese model was stained by the country’s 15-year civil war. It also codifies a demographic status quo that is out of date, as the Muslim population now dwarfs the Christian community.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, also sharply split along ethnic and sectarian lines, is essentially two separate republics with a weak federal center responsible mostly for foreign relations and monetary policy. The Balkan nation has a three-person presidency and a Parliament with a preset number of seats for each of three main ethnic groups. The arrangement, sealed in 1995 to end the war there, almost certainly would fray without heavy international oversight.

So far, the inclination among Iraqi leaders is to avoid any system based on explicit recognition of religious or ethnic differences. “The widespread feeling both in Iraq and the U.S. is to reject these models,” says Noah Feldman, a constitutional expert at New York University School of Law who advised on drafting the interim Iraqi constitution last year. “Almost no one wants a constitution that embeds ethnic identities.”

While explicit recognition of religious-ethnic differences could be problematic, these cleavages are a reality that must be recognized. Presumably, tacit recognition could be given via regional divisions, especially if done on a model where the Kurd, Shia, and Sunni regions are themselves subdivided along city-tribal-historical lines.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.