Iraqi Elections Deliver a Victory for U.S. Goals

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 6, 2009

BAGHDAD, Feb. 5 -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's strong performance in Iraq's provincial elections was also a victory for American goals.

In voting for Maliki and his allies, Iraqis appeared to be supporting a strong central government and rewarding the prime minister for restoring stability to violent areas. Iraqis favored nationalist politicians who have portrayed themselves as nonsectarian leaders opposed to the fragmentation of Iraq. And voters rejected religious parties backed by militias that were perceived as close to Iran.

And the vote took place in a remarkably peaceful climate.

The Obama administration appeared as pleased at what did not happen on election day as it was about the results. "Any election where [there is] fairness and generally aboveboard practices, where the people get a chance to vote and they're not rioting in the streets and throwing bombs . . . is a good result," a senior administration official said in Washington. "We should celebrate that. So far, so good."

"It was a good day for U.S. policy," said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East expert at the Congressional Research Service. "The results set the stage for implementing a drawdown. Nothing has happened to derail the anticipated U.S. troop reduction in Iraq this year."

The elections in 14 of 18 provinces were held to choose members of influential local councils that control finances and dispense jobs. More than 14,000 candidates from 400 parties participated.

According to preliminary results released Thursday, Maliki and his State of Law coalition won in nine provinces, transforming his Dawa party, which once had little influence, into potentially the most powerful Shiite party in Iraq. Maliki and his allies won 38 percent of the vote in Baghdad and 37 percent in Basra, an outright plurality in areas where he dispatched government forces to fight Shiite militias and restore security.

But they did not dominate elsewhere. In the other seven provinces, all in Iraq's influential Shiite south, Maliki's party narrowly won. It will probably need to build coalitions with other parties to govern effectively. The slim margins could also allow other parties to come together in opposition to Maliki.

"We are glad with the results, but we were expecting we would get more," said Muhsin al-Rubae, a senior Dawa party official. He noted that only 90 percent of the votes had been counted; the rest, he predicted, would bolster the gains.

U.S. officials are not likely to be thrilled by the political resurgence of anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Independent parties backed by his movement took second place in Baghdad and posted strong showings in Iraq's south, underscoring the cleric's street power. The Sadrists could emerge as kingmakers, as they did after the 2005 elections.

"The ballot boxes confirmed that we are a big movement," said Satar al-Batat, the head of the Sadr office in Amarah, the capital of Maysan province, where Sadr's allies finished a close second to Maliki's coalition.

In the south, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, was the biggest loser. Never very popular, it had dominated the political process with money, good organization and its militia, the Badr Organization.

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