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On Eve of Elections, Iraq Is More Stable Than Many Realize

There are still militias active in Iraq, and the level of deadly violence would be unacceptable almost any place else on Earth. But fears that Iraq is "unraveling" are overblown.

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The elections that will take place on March 7th are the first to be held in a fully sovereign Iraq, and they certainly represent a milestone in the country's political evolution. Maliki remains the most popular candidate, supported by Iraqis for having crushed both Sunni and Shiite armed groups. His Shiite rivals have been partially discredited by their roles in the civil war, and for their corruption and sectarianism, although Maliki is no saint, and he has shown himself willing to play dirty if necessary -- sending troops to Salahuddin last year to close down the provincial council, and launching specious accusations of an attempted coup in the Ministry of Interior last year to weaken the campaign of one rival. Whether he wins, or wins fairly, he is the candidate best able to maintain a stable Iraq.

But, regardless of the outcome, the elections will not precipitate a return to the civil war. The state is too strong, and there is no longer a security vacuum in Iraq. The security forces take their work seriously -- and perhaps too seriously. The sectarian militias have been beaten and marginalized, and the ­Sunnis have accepted their loss in the civil war. The framework in which Iraqis address existential issues is now the political arena.

In the United States, there is considerable trepidation about the election result, and suspicions of Iranian influence still cling to ­Maliki -- an echo of the tendentious Sunni notion that an Arab cannot have a strong Shiite identity without being pro-Iranian. Pundits, including several leading neoconservatives, have begun to argue that the U.S. should keep a larger number of troops in Iraq than was previously agreed -- but this risks undermining America's partnership with the Iraqi government, whether it is headed by Maliki or not. "You want Iraq to be pro-western and to invite you in," an American intelligence official told me. "So you build that relationship by strictly adhering to the agreement you signed."

Seven years after the disastrous American invasion, the greatest ­irony in Iraq is that, in a way, the neoconservative dream of creating a moderate ally in the region to counterbalance Iran and Saudi Arabia may finally be coming to fruition. On my trips to Iraq in years past, I made a habit of scanning the walls of Baghdad neighborhoods for bits of sectarian graffiti, spray-painted slogans that were pro-Mahdi Army, pro-Saddam, anti-Shiite or pro-insurgency. This time, however, there were almost none to be found; the exhortations to sectarian struggle had been replaced with the enthusiasms of youthful football fans: now the walls say "Long Live Barcelona."