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Iraqis Have Voted: Will the U.S. Be Kicked Out the Door Soon?

A surge of nationalism during a recent election provides a perfect opportunity for Obama to accelerate the withdrawal of US forces.

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The emergence of Iraq's nationalist movement has been a long time coming. Built around parties opposed to the influence of both Iran and the United States, it began to take shape in the fall of 2007 after a series of US actions: a Senate vote in favor of a proposal from then-Senator Joe Biden to partition Iraq into three mini-states; the brutal killing of seventeen Iraqis in Baghdad by Blackwater security forces; and US support for a law that would have opened the door to privatization of Iraq's oil industry. This helped galvanize a twelve-party alliance, including Sunni and Shiite nationalists, secular parties, ex-Baathists, former Iraqi resistance groups and various independents, that worked to preserve the country's state-owned oil companies and to combat efforts by the Kurds and ISCI to carve Iraq into regional fiefdoms. By mid-July of last year, they'd united in a bloc called the July 22 Gathering.

The July 22 group was a reaction to five years of ethnic and sectarian politicking initiated by US blunders in the wake of the invasion. From the start, the occupation authorities parceled out power according to sectarian and ethnic quotas. They first handed power, in the form of the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), to ISCI (which at that time went by the name Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq); Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party; and the two Kurdish parties. The United States then pushed hard for elections. Held in January 2005, they were a fiasco, widely seen as rigged in favor of the Shiite religious parties and the Kurds, and thus boycotted by virtually the entire Sunni Arab population. Those elections brought to power the current Shiite-Kurdish alliance. It was, says the International Crisis Group, "a victory by parties that, while popularly elected, lacked deep popular legitimacy."

The utter failure of that government to provide jobs and basic services turned millions of voters against the ruling bloc, especially the religious parties. "Over the last four years, the religious parties tried everything and proved that they are not successful leaders," says Aiham Alsammarae, Iraq's former minister of electricity, who is now working with the party of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite. "Even in the south, the religious leaders are losing their influence. People are asking, What have they done for us? There are no jobs. There is no electricity or water. The schools and hospitals are terrible. And there is so much corruption."

By January 2008, it was already beginning to appear as if new elections would result in a landslide in favor of the opposition. Among the Shiites, the populist, grassroots appeal of Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army led to predictions that the Sadrists would sweep ISCI and Dawa out of office. Among the Sunnis, the Awakening movement and the related Sons of Iraq militia were rallying hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, often led by tribal leaders, into a formidable nationalist force. And big gains seemed likely for secular parties, including those led by former Baathists such as Allawi and by Saleh al-Mutlaq, leader of the National Dialogue Front. Not only that, the four ruling parties were feuding among themselves.

Despite the growing power of the nationalists, the United States continued to back the Shiite-Kurdish bloc, and Maliki in particular (several attempts by the opposition to organize a parliamentary vote of no confidence against Maliki were rudely blocked by the US Embassy). According to Reidar Visser, an Iraq expert at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, Washington was backing a narrow and shrinking coalition that represented no more than a quarter of Iraq's population.

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