Iraqis Have Voted: Will the U.S. Be Kicked Out the Door Soon?
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Maliki and his coalition partners were well aware that provincial elections could be a disaster for them. Using various legal and quasi-legal actions, they angled to prevent a vote. "The four ruling parties were working hard to postpone provincial elections because they knew they'd lose so badly," says Jarrar.
The election, while relatively free of violence, was hardly a model of democracy. Turnout was far lower than expected, with just over half of 15 million registered voters going to the polls. In some provinces -- Baghdad and Anbar, especially -- turnout was just 40 percent. Part of the reason for the low turnout was confusion among voters over which of the 7,000 polling stations to go to, but much of it was simply because 4-5 million Iraqis have either been displaced or forced to flee to Syria, Jordan and other countries [for more on the plight of refugees see Ann Jones, page 17]. The vast majority of displaced Iraqis were unable to vote, which drastically altered results in areas such as Baghdad, Diyala and Salahuddin provinces, where Sunnis fled Shiite militias and death squads during the peak years of the civil war. "There were a lot of complaints about IDPs [internally displaced persons] not able to vote," says Nicolay Mladenov, a European MP from Bulgaria who spent a lot of time in Iraq in the run-up to the vote.
There is nothing remotely resembling a campaign-finance law in Iraq. It is widely assumed that Iran supplied large sums of cash to its favored parties, including ISCI, and that Turkey's ruling Islamist party backed the IIP. The Iraqi High Election Commission is investigating credible allegations of fraud, including reports of ballot-box stuffing, nearly all of which would have been perpetrated by the ruling alliance. "These elections were not observed by international standards," says Mladenov. "We don't have the people on the ground for that." To its credit, the United Nations trained tens of thousands of poll watchers, but only about 400 international observers were directly involved on election day.
But it was Maliki who muscled his way to big wins in Baghdad, Basra and other provinces in Iraq's largely Shiite south, and who blatantly used the power of the army, the police, the media and the prime minister's office to tilt the balance in his favor. Starting early in 2008, Maliki used the army to conduct a series of sweeping offensives in Basra, Maysan and Baghdad's Sadr City to break the power of Muqtada al-Sadr's movement. The offensives, which drew intensive US support, including air attacks and intelligence help, "scattered Sadr's movement to the four winds," says Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Maliki followed that up by ramming through an arbitrary and selectively enforced measure banning parties with militias from participating in the elections, which was aimed squarely at Sadr's 60,000-strong Mahdi Army. The International Crisis Group called it "a blatantly biased move in light of the fact that ISCI and the Kurdish parties both retain militias...loyal to their political masters."
Maliki didn't stop there. Step by step, he transformed the Iraqi army into a kind of private militia for the office of the prime minister, bypassing the chief of staff to appoint brigade commanders and other officers loyal to himself. He also created a pair of special operations units, the Baghdad Brigade and the Counterterrorism Task Force, that reported directly to him. And he used all three to conduct lethal operations against opponents, ruthlessly rounding up members of Sadr's movement and key leaders of the Awakening movement. Maliki's clear intent was to make sure that neither the Sunni nationalists nor the Sadrists were able to enter the election on a level playing field.