Thursday, March 04, 2010
Iraq faces biggest test yet of democracy
By Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY BAGHDAD — Iraqi air force 2nd Lt. Hassaneid al-Musa hopes that Sunday's national elections will be remembered as ushering in the end of the U.S. military presence here and the beginning of a safer, more prosperous Iraq. "Both the Iraqis and Americans have much to win and much to lose," said al-Musa, 24. "We both have to get this right, or we'll see the country move backward." The elections for 325 spots in the parliament are a major test of whether Iraq will survive as a democracy and an ally in the Middle East, say political and military figures in Iraq and the USA. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, says a smooth election is the key to a timely removal of the 96,000 remaining U.S. servicemembers in Iraq. Christopher Hill, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, says the vote will show whether Iraqis stand together without interference from malevolent elements in Iran. VIOLENCE: Suicide blasts in Baqouba kill 32 CASUALTIES: American casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond If the vote is viewed as unfair by any party, some Iraqis fear it could reignite sectarian violence and put pressure on President Obama to postpone his plan to withdraw all U.S. troops by the end of next year. "The situation could be very dangerous," said Ayad Jamal Aldin, a pro-American, Shiite parliamentarian running for re-election. "After spending billions of dollars and losing thousands of Americans, how is it in America's interest to leave while the situation here is still unsettled?" New chapter for Iraq For Iraq, the elections may signal the end of a perilous journey. Thirty years of a brutal dictatorship ended in 2003 with the ouster of Saddam Hussein by a U.S.-led military coalition. Elections in early 2005 aimed to unify the nation but were boycotted by Sunni Muslims. Sunnis are a minority in Iraq but the prime supporters of Saddam's regime, which had oppressed the majority Shiites for decades. In late 2005, another election was held in which Sunnis did participate. But al-Qaeda terrorists, shielded by Sunnis, undermined the nascent democracy with relentless suicide bombings that killed thousands, such as the blowing up of the revered Golden Mosque in Samarra. Shiites sent death squads out to kidnap and kill. Dozens of headless bodies appeared on the streets daily. In Washington, Democrats in Congress demanded the U.S. pull out. In 2007, the surge of troops ordered by President Bush arrived, the Sunnis backed away from al-Qaeda, and the violence ebbed. After Obama was elected in 2008, he vowed that Iraq would have to take care of its own security by late 2010. As the world waits to see whether the elections mend the nation or tear it apart, the candidates are busy pressing the flesh. "Let me remind you of the terrible situation we were in just a few years ago, and let us not forgot how much the situation has improved today," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told a roaring crowd that responded with chants of "Let him work." Al-Maliki, a Shiite who is trying to remain atop Iraq's parliament, has barnstormed southern Iraq and Baghdad, holding rallies at soccer stadiums and visiting tribal leaders in predominantly Shiite areas where he is popular. At Shaab Stadium in Baghdad, al-Maliki told supporters that the election season's vibrancy was a credit to the progress Iraq has made under his stewardship. He touted himself as both a uniter of Iraq's Shiite and Sunni communities and a defender against sympathizers to the former Baath Party of Saddam, who he says are intent on returning to power. Former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi, a Shiite who is running on a Sunni-Shiite coalition, says he is better suited to maintain the peace. He says al-Maliki marginalizes the Sunnis and could reopen sectarian violence. Allawi promises to run a moderate government and strengthen ties to the Arab world. That leaves out Iran, also largely Shiite, which Allawi warns is trying to tilt the elections toward radical elements it has been supporting in Iraq. There appears to be no disagreement on the issue that Americans may care about the most: the status of U.S. forces. Both candidates want them out, and voters seem to be looking beyond the troops. What is important to Iraqis is that the next government address the people's needs, said Muhammad Hameed, who was among thousands of flag-waving supporters at al-Maliki's campaign rally. "We need the government to give us jobs, provide security and improve services," Hameed, 36, said. "And we need our leaders to be honest and without corruption." Echoes of American politics Some of the leading candidates from the most prominent parties are spending millions of dollars on television advertising and political consultants. One secular party, called Ahrar, even hired election strategists that have run campaigns of former Vermont governor Howard Dean and former Australian prime minister John Howard. In Fallujah, Effan Saadoun al-Issawi, 38, warmly embraces each voter he meets, a gun in his holster and an ammunition belt splayed on his chest. He speaks of Baghdad with the same disdain that some American politicians have for Washington. "What have these politicians in Baghdad done with all the money over the last five or six years?" says al-Issawi, one of the first fighters to join the Sunni Awakening movement, which helped push al-Qaeda out of Iraq. "We don't even know where they live," he says. "How can we go knock on their door and tell them our concerns?" Al-Issawi is among hundreds of candidates vying for a chance to represent Anbar province in the next parliament, and he represents a political revival in the Sunni-dominated province — despite an attempt by a Shiite-led government panel to prevent Sunni leaders from running because of alleged ties to the outlawed Baath Party. Omar al-Jabouri, who is running with the Sunni Tawafaq bloc, says the ban was an attempt by al-Maliki to distract voters from his record. "The people are looking for asphalt for the roads, better water and electricity and schools," al-Jabouri said. "But all the talk has been about who is a Baathist." No coalition is likely to win the 50% vote tally needed to form a government on its own. Hill said he expects it will take several months of negotiations between the various groups to seat a new government. "Will there be sectarian strife after the elections? That's our bigger concern at this point," said U.S. Brig. Gen. Kevin Mangum, who oversees troops in western Baghdad. "There are some questions about (whether there will be) good losers and good winners."