Iraq's Elections Strengthen Secular Moderates Who Seek to Curb Iran's Influence

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

IRAQ'S FIRST postwar election four years ago was mostly a procedural victory: Iraqis sent a message to the world by turning out en masse despite intimidation from al-Qaeda and the pervasive threat of violence. Last weekend's vote, which occurred during one of the calmest periods Iraq has experienced since the U.S. invasion, was a political triumph. Though results are still preliminary, they show that voters strongly rewarded Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for his forceful action against extremist militias and his secular nationalist agenda -- and punished religious parties perceived as too sectarian or too close to Iran. The nonsectarian alliance of former prime minister Ayad Allawi also appears to have done well, and nationalist Sunnis gained influence in areas where they had lacked it because of previous election boycotts. In short, Iraq appears to have taken a step toward becoming the moderate Arab democracy that the Bush administration long hoped for.

The big winner in Iraq's first elections four years ago was the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite movement with its own militia that was backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and that maintained close links with Iran. The party favored splitting off Iraq's Shiite provinces into a separate region, and some of its leaders were deeply involved in sectarian warfare against Sunnis. That record appears to have been decisively rejected in last weekend's vote: Mr. Maliki's State of Law ticket appears to have finished first in Baghdad, in the southern port of Basra and in every southern province but one. Candidates backed by Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Iranian-backed militia was trounced by the Iraqi army last year, did well in places, but not well enough to restore his former influence.

Some results remain unclear and may bring trouble. Sunni tribesmen who led the fight against al-Qaeda in Anbar province threatened to go to war if the results showed them second to the rival Iraqi Islamic Party, and authorities promised an investigation of possible fraud there. Overall turnout, at 51 percent, was lower than authorities hoped for, perhaps partly because of the displacement of many citizens in Baghdad and Anbar. But in Nineveh province, home of the important city of Mosul, Sunni nationalists will probably take over the local government, which may defuse one of the last centers of the insurgency.

Oddly, the biggest beneficiary of the election other than Mr. Maliki may be President Obama, who has been a skeptic both of progress in Iraq and the value of elections in unstable states. Mr. Obama acknowledged on Monday that "Iraqis just had a very significant election with no significant violence" and called that "good news" -- but only in the sense that it could justify withdrawing "a substantial number" of U.S. troops this year. While such a drawdown is certainly a desirable goal, the president would do well to recognize, value and exploit the very real political progress Iraq has made -- and to be careful not to undercut it by acting too quickly on his exit strategy.

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