Iraqis voted in their first democratic election in nearly half a century Sunday with many observers saying the day appeared to have yielded higher turnout than expected and less violence than feared.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid was online from Baghdad on Monday, Jan. 31, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the aftermath of the elections and the latest news from Iraq.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Anthony Shadid: Good morning. It's a pleasure to join you all today from Baghdad.
What do yesterday's elections mean for the future of the insurgency?
Anthony Shadid: The short answer is that I don't think it will have a tremendous impact in the near-term. Beyond that, it's a far tougher call. I think the sense of some here is that the election could provide legitimacy to a coming government, investing the population more in its efforts. Until now, past governments -- both that of Ayad Allawi and the Governing Council -- have lived under the debilitating shadow of U.S. authority here. If the government does have greater credibility -- and that's still a big if -- that will go a long way in bringing a new sense of order. That said, even U.S. officials have the sense that attacks may even increase in the coming days and weeks. And the most difficult issue remains how to end the alienation of Iraq's Sunni Arabs, who represent about a fifth of the population. So far, there's no sign that the election will resolve that.
Have you heard any estimate regarding the Sunni turnout? Do you think that seeing their Shite and Kurdish countrymen vote will force the Sunni community to reconsider their support of the insurgency and join the political process?
Anthony Shadid: We saw a mixed picture yesterday. In some towns and cities like Ramadi, Thuluyah and Bayji, there was not significant Sunni turnout. Some have predicted in parts of central and northern Iraq, where insurgents hold sway, participation was probably in the single digits. That was expected somewhat. What surprised us, at least, was the turnout we saw in some Sunni areas in Baghdad. At one polling station I was at in the Sunni neighborhood of Tunis, few showed up in the early hours. But as attacks proved less fierce than expected, more came out, and the numbers really surged between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. There was a similar story in the neighborhood of Khadhra. Those voters don't necessarily support the U.S. presence -- in fact, most oppose it, sometimes vociferously. But many probably don't approve of the direction of the insurgency, either. Whether those sentiments may represent a more powerful political current in the coming weeks is tough to say.
How competitive were the races in the areas you covered? Did you get a sense from the Iraqi voters of how willing most will be to accept the election results even if the results run counter to their individual wishes?
Anthony Shadid: What struck me most on election day and in the weeks before was what the vote actually seemed to mean to so many people. Rarely were issues debated; the constitution, whose writing will be the main task of the coming parliament, was hardly mentioned. To a lot of people, it seemed the vote was important as a means in itself, as a mechanism to somehow bring about change. And in interviews yesterday, you heard that. People wouldn't talk about the parties as much as exercising their rights. In essence, this was the first time under Saddam Hussein or the American occupation that many Iraqis could express themselves in a very tangible way. That's not to say that there weren't historical narratives at play -- devout Shiites were very conscious of the views of the religious leadership on the election, and Kurds spoke in terms of the past. But the euphoria you saw in places seemed to be more about the novelty of the experience than any specific platform or party.
As an avid Post reader, I was very happy to see your byline again. You'll never know how much we readers appreciate your reporting. Now that the voting is over, what do Iraqis see in the near future? Symbolism aside, what does this election mean to them? What are their expectations? Again, thanks for your work. Stay safe!
Anthony Shadid: Thanks for the kind words. I hate to predict, because predictions are usually wrong here. But it's hard to have covered yesterday without feeling that a moment was witnessed. Will Iraq in three months look like it did last week? That's very possible. Will this election create a momentum that somehow changes that? That's possible, too. In spending time in Iraq, I'm struck by how resilient many residents are. Time and again since Saddam's fall, they've met similar moments with a surge of optimism: the start of the occupation, the naming of the Governing Council, the appointment of Allawi. Disappointment soon followed. This government definitely will enjoy good will when it takes office. But it will have to address concerns that many people wanted dealt with when they voted. At the top is security, along with joblessness, crime, a fuel crisis and an unpopular U.S. presence. That's a big agenda for any government, and a particular challenge in a country that has endured so much under Saddam and then the occupation.
What sorts of things will you be watching over the next month or two to judge how things are going? Are there likely to be problems when the results are announced?
Anthony Shadid: Final results are expected in 10 days, though I suspect we'll hear something before that. I'm interested to see a few things in the coming weeks -- the direction of the insurgency and the posture of U.S. troops, popular perception of the parliament and the almost certain wrangling over naming a new government, and the prospect of trying to reach out to alienated Sunnis. The way those issues play out will decide a lot.
Thanks for taking these questions and for serving as a witness to these historic events.
Is there any feel for the question of the new government requesting that Coalition troops be reduced or withdrawn?
Anthony Shadid: That issue has always generated a mixed reaction. The standing of the United States in Iraq is remarkably low, and polls show a majority of both Sunni and Shiite Arabs want the troops to withdraw. Many who say that, though, will note that a withdrawal would likely worsen security here. It goes to the very questions of pride and survival -- occupation is a tough word in Arabic, loaded with a lot of images that we might not associate it with. At the same time, survival means security, and security is probably the biggest concern of most Iraqis.
Given yesterday's voting process, in which people voted for numbered party lists rather than candidates, the Parliament is going to be a "grab bag" of sorts. Are there any particularly unsavory people near the top of a favored list that may be trouble for the new government? In general, who will some of the "major players" be that U.S. observers haven't heard from yet, but will in the near future?
Anthony Shadid: It's tough to say. We probably won't see final results for 10 days or so, though early returns will probably leak out. There may be surprises here and there, but most people have a sense that three currents will be best represented: a grouping of the two main Kurdish parties, a faction loyal to interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and a largely Shiite coalition that received the tacit endorsement of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. That group, the United Iraqi Alliance, may prove the most interesting. Given Sistani's support, it was seen as the front-runner. If it comes in anything but first, I think a lot of people will be surprised. Even if it does come in first, it will have to deal with its own fractious ranks once in parliament. A lot of the parties inside the alliance aren't that fond of each other.
What surprised you most on election day?
Anthony Shadid: My biggest surprise was the way voting surged through the day in Baghdad. It's difficult to describe how insecure the capital can feel at times. Many Iraqis are afraid to drive down Haifa Street, which is not too far from the very headquarters of the Iraqi government and the U.S. Embassy. A lot of people in the morning held back. But then they literally looked out their windows and saw crowds in the streets. Not only crowds, either. They were festive, even jubilant -- clapping, chanting and playing soccer. It was as if a psychological barrier had been breached, and its impact seemed to snowball as the hours passed. If the numbers I was told were true -- two thirds of Sunni Arabs voting in one neighborhood I visited -- that's a remarkable statement of the desire on the part of residents in Baghdad, at least, to have a say in their future. It wasn't necessarily an endorsement of the U.S., of Allawi or of any party. It seemed more a desire of people to seize their own destiny.
Good morning (or evening to you), Mr. Shadid. I've admired your reporting from Iraq for a long time.
Do you have a sense of how the election was covered in Arab-language media? Obviously we do not here; it just occurred to me that the insurgency could have taken a body blow in terms of its support in other Arab countries. It must be harder to portray the insurgency as a popular resistance movement.
Anthony Shadid: Arab media covered the election intensively, often with more nuance than their Western counterparts. I think there were two aspects to what viewers saw. One was the coverage itself, which on election day at least, was pretty much the only story going. The other was the inundation of campaign advertising that went on some pan-Arab stations, as well as local Iraqi channels. I don't know what the impact of that will be. But there's no question that it was landmark. Simply put, the election was easily one of the freest in the Arab world. As for the insurgency, that's tough to answer. It's difficult to overstate how negative the U.S. image is in the Arab world. The U.S. enjoys little credibility, either in other Arab countries or, to be honest, in Iraq. Without the U.S. presence here, I suspect the election would probably have a bigger impact on Arab views, simply because the vote would have been unencumbered by U.S. baggage. That said, I would be surprised if there weren't some serious reverberations in the region from yesterday, particularly among the elite.
Is there any possibility of radical Islamic parties gaining much power due to the elections? I don't recall what was the U.S. government's reaction to the Algerian government's cancellation of elections when it was apparent that Islamic parties were going to win.
Anthony Shadid: That's not the sense here, right now. One thing to watch will be the breakdown between Allawi's party and the United Iraqi Alliance, which was backed by the Shiite religious leadership. Allawi ran, in some ways, as the secular alternative. The alliance, on the other hand, had the crucial support of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. No one is talking about clerics in the government, and the cabinet will probably look remarkably secular, a tradition that has deep roots in Iraq. If the alliance does well, though, you will see the clergy having a substantial voice in how the constitution is written. It will probably be a behind-the-scenes role, but it will be there. The issues they will want to weigh in on are, in many ways, the key issues for Iraq's future: the role of religious law in the constitution, the nature of federalism and personal status law (whether issues such as marriage and inheritance are covered under a civil code or religious law).
You mentioned that many Sunni voters "don't approve of the direction of the insurgency either." Do these voters think of the insurgency as a unified group? Or are they perceived as a number of disparate groups united only because of anti-Americanism or opposition to an elected government? And is the "insurgency" in fact becoming a more coordinated group, or is primarily made up of decentralized groups of terrorists?
Anthony Shadid: That's an excellent point, and it's a shorthand that we journalists sometimes overly rely on. The insurgency is, indeed, a disparate group unified basically by hostility to the presence of U.S. forces. They range from religious militants to nationalists to foreigners who see this as a another front in a struggle defined in very historical, religious terms. Before the election, I had a conversation in the Sunni neighborhood of Khadhra. His point -- one often heard in Sunni Arab regions -- is that resistance to occupation is legitimate, and he complained that U.S. officials and Iraqi leaders didn't differentiate between what he supported, attacks on U.S. troops, and what he opposed, random carnage inflicted on civilians. Then, he made the point that insurgents often didn't differentiate either -- that their attacks in the name of fighting the Americans claimed innocent lives. (He said three of his wife's relatives were killed in such attacks.) I don't want to read too much into the conversation, but sentiments toward the insurgency, particularly among Sunnis, can sometimes be very complex.
The media seems to be falling over themselves, gushing
almost, about the election. But I am reminded of all the
other false, "mission accomplished" moment" we have
seen, each supposedly the turning point . In the end the
election went exactly like one would think. Sunni's stayed
home. Those standing to gain the most voted. Do you
believe the White House's quick declaration of resounding
success might be a bit premature? And why has no one
pointed out that Bush was opposed these elections at
first. It was only after Sistini organize street protest and
issued a fatwa did Bush agree to allow them, and then he
insisted on delaying them until after the US election. A
delay I believe was disastrous.
Anthony Shadid: It's a good note of caution. Like I said in an earlier reply, it was hard to see yesterday and not feel impressed by the simple fact that so many people would defy threats and make their voices heard. Whether it brings change to what has admittedly been a very tough two years is difficult to say. As for the timing of the elections, I was struck by another feature of the vote. It was the security in Baghdad. In some ways, the city felt safer than it has since the U.S. invasion. A lot of people here, those who saw the looting and anarchy that followed Saddam's collapse, wondered how the past two years would have played out had a similar clampdown been instituted in those first weeks of the occupation.
Hyde Park, London:
Do you think that there will be pressure after the election
to reduce the presence of American forces in Sunni areas
in order to seek accomodation? Does this run the risk of
creating safe areas for insurgents? Finally, do you think, in
the absence of American forces, that the insurgents would
have the capability of taking the centers of power in
Baghdad? The Shia and other moderate forces have the
numbers to prevent this, but do they have the stomach for
Anthony Shadid: I'm afraid I can't answer a lot of the questions. But I think one of the most compelling things to watch in the coming months will be how the government reaches out to Sunni Arabs -- do U.S. and Iraqi forces try to defeat the insurgency, do they try to co-opt elements of it, do they rely on more mainstream Sunni leaders as mediators, do they ignore them? I don't know the answers, but it could prove decisive to the success of the government over the coming year.
Anthony Shadid: It looks like time is up. I really appreciate all the questions, and I'm sorry I didn't get to answer all of them. I hope to join you all again soon.