Sunday’s elections were a great success. An estimated 60% of Iraq’s 14 million eligible voters cast their ballots and all went as expected. While Sunni turnout was low, the Shiites voted in great numbers. In the insurgent-Sunni stronghold of Ramadi for example, only 1,700 of the eligible 400,000 went to the ballot box, but in the Shiite town of Najaf, 85% of eligible Iraqis voted. The Iraqi Election board reported that even as 80% of all polling places documented irregularities, the election was fraud-free. To the relief of many, Election Day was also relatively bloodless. Out of 175 attempted attacks, only 44 Iraqis and 11 U.S. soldiers lost their lives.
Once final election results become available, the newly elected 275-member-assembly will serve out an 11 month term. The group will select a governing council–which will elect a prime minister–and draft a permanent constitution which, if approved, will clear the way towards a national election of a permanent body in mid-December.
Above all, the elections are a powerful victory and credibility boost for the president. But he can’t take all the credit. The Washington Post reminds us that “the Bush administration initially resisted the idea of holding elections this soon and only succumbed under pressure from Iraq’s most powerful cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. The original plan, designed by then-U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer, was a complicated formula of regional caucuses to select a national government, which would write a constitution, and then hold the elections.”
“It was Sistani who demanded one-person, one-vote elections. So to the extent it’s a victory, it’s a victory for Iraqis. The Americans were maneuvered into having to go along with it,” said Juan Cole, an Iraq expert at the University of Michigan.
But while credit allocation is superfluous, voter intent and objective are not. Opinion polls have long shown Iraqis’ desire for U.S. troop withdrawal. A new Zogby poll is no different. According to the survey, 82% of Sunnis and 69% of Shiites now favor a U.S. pullout. As the Post points out, “many Iraqis viewed the election as one way to accelerate the U.S. withdrawal rather than a vindication of U.S. policy.” Put another way, the Iraqis went to the polls and voted for troop withdrawal. But the president has never respected freedom of choice and thus”ruled out creating a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq” even before the election.
In the eyes of Iraqis, a troop withdrawal is well justified. And despite administration fiction, Iraqi justification is rooted in ground-war realities, not anti-Americanism sentiment (although that might be a contributing factor). Figures from Iraq’s Ministry of Health suggest that of the 3,300 civilians killed between July of last year and the New Year, over 2,000 were killed by the U.S. coalition and Iraqi forces; 1,200 were killed by the insurgency. Occupation opponents (and I’m not talking about the extremists) are mothers and fathers, and a perception that Americans only intensify conflict and violence persuades many to vote for withdrawal. (Whether this will happen or not is of course impossible to predict).
Still, many questions lie unanswered: If great majorities of the Iraqi people want American troops out, but the newly elected government doesn’t yield to popular demand, what does this mean for democracy in the region? Or, what if Iraqi policy goals don’t match American foreign objectives? What will the elections mean for other Middle Eastern countries? What kind of precedent have they established? Major conflicts must be avoided: How will the new Shiite dominated government attract the secular Sunnis? When will Iraqi troops stand on their own? And what about reconstruction? Only $2.7 billion of the $18.4 billion appropriated has found its way into Iraqi rebuilding efforts. With the elections behind us, will the focus shift to reestablishing basic services? Please visit and also comment on www.politicalthought.net.