Iraq embraces the election that will shape its future

Crucial test for Prime Minister Maliki and democracy as American forces begin withdrawal

By Patrick Cockburn
Saturday 31 January 2009 01:00

Campaign posters are pasted over the concrete blast walls across Iraq as parties urge followers to vote in today's provincial elections. They will determine the political landscape of Iraq as American troops withdraw.

The last provincial polls four years ago helped ignite the civil war between Sunni and Shia, because the once-dominant Sunni community felt marginalised. Today's ballot, followed by a parliamentary election later this year, will determine which parties will hold power in the Sunni and Shia communities.

Unlike the 2005 election, when many Iraqis argued that real power stayed in the hands of the Americans, the vote on 31 January will take place as the 142,000 US troops in Iraq begin to depart. In keeping with the federal constitution, the new councils will exercise greatly enhanced powers such as the right to appoint and dismiss governors as well as preparing their own budget.

The election will be a crucial test for the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has had a spectacularly successful year during which he faced down, at different times, the US, the Kurds and his Shia rivals. He has been strengthening his own small Dawa party by using state funds and patronage to buy the support of tribal leaders.

The political elite in Iraq has an unsavoury reputation among voters as a kleptocracy interested only in plundering oil wealth and incapable of providing electricity, water supply and sewage disposal. The election will take place against a background of improved security but also disillusionment with post-Saddam leaders. "If things do not improve I fear there will be a neo-Baathist takeover in a few years," said one former government minister.

The election of 2005 led to more violence because Sunni Arabs and many of the Shia poor did not accept them as valid and did not vote. This time round all parties accept the rules of the game.

A poll reflecting the real allegiances of voters will determine who holds power in important parts of Iraq. Nineveh, the capital of which is Mosul, has a Sunni Arab majority but has largely been ruled by Kurds in alliance with the US since a 2004 Sunni uprising. The Kurds have 31 out of 41 seats in the local council because the Sunni mostly did not vote in the last election. Anbar, the giant province where almost all are Sunni Arabs, and once the heart of the rebellion against the US occupation, is seeing a battle for the allegiance of the Sunni community. This is between the Iraqi Islamic Party, which won by default last time round, and the Awakening Councils, tribally-based anti-al-Qa'ida militias backed by the US military which have strong popular support.

The Shia parties are also split. Four years ago they joined the all-powerful United Iraqi Alliance backed by the immensely influential Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. This coalition's aim was to enable the Shia, 60 per cent of Iraqis, to win elections and take over as Iraq's dominant community. They largely succeeded, but the coalition is no more.

The Grand Ayatollah is staying neutral this time around. The most powerful party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), is at odds with Mr Maliki's state-backed Dawa party. Followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Mehdi Army militia once controlled much of Shia Iraq, still have support among the poor and will back independent candidates.

The venom with which party rivalry is conducted is because state patronage is the main source of job in Iraq where half of the population is unemployed. Everybody, from a policeman to a teacher, needs a letter from a political party to get a job. ISCI, which currently controls Baghdad council and most of the Shia provinces, has a powerful political machine but is widely unpopular because of its corruption.

Mr Maliki's Dawa party currently only rules one province, Kerbala, but is organising tribal councils with government funds. The Prime Minister burnished his nationalist and non-sectarian credentials last year by attacking the Sadrists in Basra, Amara and Sadr City. The Iraqi army only won with US military help, but Mr Maliki refused to sign a status of forces agreement with the US until it agreed to pull troops out of urban areas by this summer and from Iraq by the end of 2011. He also attracted popular Arab support by moving against Kurdish control of Nineveh province and other territories disputed by Arabs and Kurds. This made him a lot of enemies among Kurds and other Shia political leaders. He needs to do well in the elections if he is going to continue to centralise power and increase his authority.

The election in numbers

*More than 14,400 candidates are vying for a seat in today's poll. Around 3,900 are women.

*There are 440 seats up for grabs, across 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces.

*300,000 observers – local and international – will monitor the poll.

*Salah al-Rekhayis, who calls himself the "Iraqi Obama", is running in Basra and hopes to be the 1st black Iraqi to win an election.

*When there were last elections in Iraq – in January 2005 – there were 92 attacks each day. On Wednesday when some early voting took place, there was just 1 according to a US military spokesman.

*6 candidates have been killed prior to the elections – 3 on Thursday.

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