Iraq Needs Early Elections

The protests which erupted in the Al-Anbar governorate after the December 21 arrest of 10 of Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi’s bodyguards on terrorism allegations have spread to Tikrit, Mosul, parts of Baghdad and other predominantly Sunni areas. Max Boot has written about the arrests here, and I have offered a different take, here.

Since we last commented on the issue, radical Islamists—their confidence bolstered by the success of their fellow-travelers in Syria—have thrown in their support for the Al Anbar protestors as has radical Shi’ite firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr. So, too, has Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri, vice chairman of Saddam Hussein’s Revolutionary Command Council and the highest ranking member of Saddam’s regime to remain a fugitive. Demonstrating how Baathism and al-Qaeda interests sometimes inter-connect, Izzat Ibrahim declared, “What is happening in Iraq today, especially in its intelligence operations, and the government of puppets and its institutions, is the Persian-Safawi project in all its depth and comprehensiveness implemented by the Safawi coalition led by the Dawa Party and its leader Maliki.” The al-Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq, meanwhile, SITE Monitoring reported, released a statement on January 5 castigating “Those [who] are the true enemies of the Sunni people, and they didn’t mobilize themselves except when the fire of the Safavid hatred reached them….”

The Safawi (in Arabic) or Safavids (as often transcribed into English from Persian) were the 16th century dynasty which converted Iran to Shi’ism. Reference to the Iraqi Shi’ites as Safavids is common practice among those who want to castigate all Shi’ites as Iranian fifth columnists. Topping off recent events, former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, an ex-Baathist himself, has called for early elections in Iraq.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should call his bluff. The time is right for early elections. President Jalal Talabani’s stroke—he is brain dead and dependent on life support according to doctors who have seen him in Germany, although Kurdish politicians will deny this publicly until they get their house in order—has thrown a wrench into already chaotic Iraqi politics.

Allawi and many of his supporters remain bitter that although his party came in first in the 2009 elections he was unable to stitch together a coalition. Allawi has spread a lot of money—much of it from unclear origins—along K Street and is the unabashed favorite of the U.S. military, Central Intelligence Agency, Jordanians and Turks. Spending money on lobbyists and media abroad, however, may win hearts and minds in Washington, London, and Ankara, but does not do much for ordinary Iraqis. The majority of Iraqis—perhaps 65 or 70 percent now—are Shi’ites and while they may not all care for Maliki, they utterly reject neo-Baathism or their own subordination to sectarian Sunni parties. Until the good men and women of Al-Anbar and Tikrit recognize that they will never have the numbers to restore their domination of Iraq, they will never accept freely-elected governments. Rather than convince them of the need to integrate into Iraqi society, General David Petraeus’s policies of co-option and appeasement may have achieved his short-term military goals, but politically, they increased the Fallujans and Tikritis sense of entitlement and promised a reckoning down the road.

For all that his opponents unfairly depict him as an authoritarian dictator, the incredibly close 2009 elections, meanwhile, continue to paralyze Iraqi politics. The only way through the impasse will be to hold parliamentary elections alongside the provincial elections already scheduled for April 2013. While Iraq will have to overcome Kurdish reticence to hold elections (Iraqi Kurdistan has yet to hold the 2009 provincial elections, let alone prepare for the 2013 round), the results will probably be good for everyone. Not only will they confirm the hemorrhaging of Muqtada al-Sadr’s grassroots support as his followers conclude that he is a shameful opportunist willing to sacrifice their interests to those of Masud Barzani and former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, but Ayad Allawi will also likely see that he is not as popular as his foreign paymasters whisper in his ear. Most importantly, those who wish to return to the dark days of Saddam or, alternately, transform Iraq into a safe-haven for al-Qaeda will learn that the Iraqi people have had enough war and enough violence and would like the opportunity to rebuild, be it in Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Ramadi, or Tuz Khurmatu.

It is the nature of Iraqi politics to call whoever is in power an “authoritarian” and warn ominously that he wishes to be a “new Saddam.” Especially if their words were true, then there is no better call than to demand the prime minister submit himself to free and fair elections as well. Let us hope that April 2013 will mark a new beginning in Iraq, as Iraqis again head to the polls observed by teams from the United States, Iran, Turkey, the Arab League, among others.